As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Return Of Competence

At the very least, the transition from Bush to Obama will renew a sense that government is serious about its mission and determined to fulfill it, instead of a determination to destroy government from within.

In early 2001, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sought to publish a special bulletin warning dental technicians that they could be exposed to dangerous beryllium alloys while grinding fillings. Health studies showed that even a single day's exposure at the agency's permitted level could lead to incurable lung disease.

After the bulletin was drafted, political appointees at the agency gave a copy to a lobbying firm hired by the country's principal beryllium manufacturer, according to internal OSHA documents. The epidemiologist, Peter Infante, incorporated what he considered reasonable changes requested by the company and won approval from key directorates, but he bristled when the private firm complained again [...]

Current and former career officials at OSHA say that such sagas were a recurrent feature during the Bush administration, as political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure.

The result is a legacy of unregulation common to several health-protection agencies under Bush: From 2001 to the end of 2007, OSHA officials issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations termed economically significant by the Office of Management and Budget than their counterparts did during a similar period in President Bill Clinton's tenure, according to White House lists.

Another example of this is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which hasn't had a chairman in two years.

Moreover, the three-person commission has been without a chairman since July 2006.

That's when Hal Stratton, an appointee of President Bush, departed to take a job with a law firm that specializes in shooting down class-action lawsuits filed by consumers. In March 2007, Bush nominated Michael Baroody, a manufacturing industry lobbyist, to head the commission.

Baroody withdrew from consideration after lawmakers demanded copies of his severance agreement with the National Assn. of Manufacturers. Bush never nominated anyone else.

In August, after the recalls of millions of toys and other products, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was signed into law. It will significantly streamline and enhance the commission's operations, including new resources for disclosure of defective goods.

"A blueprint for success has been set in place for the commission," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety for the Consumer Federation of America. "Now all we need is the leadership to act on it, and to restore the commission's funding and resources."

Political appointees have stifled any meaningful action from these regulatory agencies, and indeed the administrative leaders are commonly former industry lobbyists or lawyers whose prior role was to block regulatory oversight of business. One would suspect that an Obama Administration would staff these agencies with competent technocrats who will work in the public interest rather than the interests of multinational corporations. I think it's pretty clear that he will follow this dictate.

Competency was a hallmark of Obama's cabinet picks, and while it will not save us completely from the mess that has been made of the federal government, it's definitely a step forward. We won't have the philosophy of "government is the problem" guiding us anymore. And as a result, Americans will be safer from harm.

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