Obama’s Quiet Revolution

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Official White House photo by Pete Souza

These days,liberals don’t know whether to feel betrayed by or merely disappointed with Barack Obama. From his health care plan to Afghanistan to Wall Street, Obama has thoroughly let down his party’s left flank.

Yet there is one extremely consequential area where Obama has done just about everything a liberal could ask for–but done it so quietly that almost no one, including most liberals, has noticed. Obama’s three Republican predecessors were all committed to weakening or even destroying the country’s regulatory apparatus: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the other agencies that are supposed to protect workers and consumers by regulating business practices. Now Obama is seeking to rebuild these battered institutions. In doing so, he isn’t simply improving the effectiveness of various government offices or making scattered progress on a few issues; he is resuscitating an entire philosophy of government with roots in the Progressive era of the early 20th century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office.

The regulatory agencies, most of which date from one of the three great reform periods (1901-14, 1932-38, and 1961-72) of the past century, were intended to smooth out the rough edges (the “externalities,” in economic jargon) of modern capitalism–from dirty air to dangerous workplaces to defective merchandise to financial corruption. With wide latitude in writing and enforcing regulations, they have been described as a “fourth branch of government.”

That wide latitude could invite abuses of power, but the old-time progressives who fashioned the regulatory state rested their hopes on what could be called “scientific administration.” Louis Brandeis and Herbert Croly–to name two of the foremost turn-of-the-20th-century progressives–believed that the agencies, staffed by experts schooled in social and natural science and employing the scientific method in their decision making, could rise above partisanship and interest-group pressure. The success of the regulatory agencies, Croly wrote, depended upon “a sufficient popular confidence in the ability of enlightened and trained individuals . . . and the actual existence for their use of a body of sufficiently authentic social knowledge.”

Many of the past century’s presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton, subscribed to this progressive ideal of regulation based on expertise. But, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in the presidency of George W. Bush, the notion of scientific administration came under attack from Republicans and their allies. They began to subvert the agencies by bringing in business executives, corporate lawyers, and lobbyists–the very opposite of the impartial experts envisioned by Brandeis and Croly.

Reagan chose Thorne Auchter, the vice president of a construction firm, to head OSHA. Bush appointed a mining company executive to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration and a trucking company executive to head the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. To lead OSHA, he named Edwin G. Foulke Jr., a longtime foe of the agency who had advised companies on how to block union organization.

Some of the Republican appointees weren’t business types, but ideologues or hacks who were utterly unqualified for their positions. Anne Gorsuch, whom Reagan nominated to head the EPA, was a rising member of the Colorado House of Representatives, where she was part of a conservative group known as the “House crazies.” Michael Brown, whom Bush appointed to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), had previously been commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.

Obama’s regulatory appointments could not be more different–no surprise given that he is the son of two social scientists (one of whom attempted to introduce scientific administration to Kenya) and that he once worked in academia himself. Indeed, the flow of expertise into the federal bureaucracy over the past year has been reminiscent of what took place at the start of the New Deal.

For instance, as a replacement for Foulke at OSHA, Obama chose David Michaels, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. In 2008 Michaels published a book, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, detailing how businesses had delayed regulations by “manufacturing uncertainty” about scientific findings.

To manage the EPA, Obama appointed a slew of highly experienced state environmental officials. His choice to run the agency was Lisa Jackson, a chemical engineer who led the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Her deputies include the former secretary of the environment in Maryland, as well as the former heads of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the Massachusetts Bureau of Resource Protection, and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Meanwhile, Obama chose as his Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Margaret Hamburg, who achieved renown during the 1990s as health commissioner of New York City, where she developed a program for controlling tuberculosis that led to a sharp decline in the disease. Jonathan Jarvis, Obama’s director of the National Park Service, is a 34-year veteran of the agency–and the first biologist to lead it. And his new administrator of FEMA is W. Craig Fugate, who performed outstandingly as Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist’s head of emergency management in Florida. Fugate may not know anything about Arabian stallions–but he does know a thing or two about hurricanes.

The upshot of appointing the right people–and giving them enough funding, as Obama is working to do–is that the regulatory agencies are once again able to serve their intended purpose. Already, it is possible to discern signs of progress. In her first year at the EPA, Jackson granted California a waiver to impose tougher greenhouse-gas standards for new automobiles, which the Bush administration had denied. She declared that the EPA would set standards for greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. And she accepted the EPA staff’s recommendations for tougher smog standards–recommendations that had been rebuffed by the previous EPA head. Science, it seems clear, is back in command at the EPA.

At OSHA, the Bush administration, with the support of Republicans in Congress, had repealed the rules governing ergonomic injuries (which account for 30 percent of compensation claims filed by workers). OSHA even eliminated the column in the reports that companies file where such injuries were supposed to be listed. Obama’s OSHA immediately restored the column and is working on a new national regulatory standard for these injuries.

During the Bush years, there was growing evidence that diacetyl, an artificial flavoring used in making popcorn and other food, was causing severe lung illness among workers exposed to it. Foulke refused to take action, declaring the extensive science documenting the link to be “murky.” Moreover, Foulke failed to develop standards governing silica dust–which has also been linked to lung ailments. Obama’s OSHA is moving ahead on both fronts. In October, OSHA also levied its largest fine ever, requiring BP to pay $87 million for a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers in Texas.

At the FDA, Hamburg has issued warnings on dietary supplements. She also obtained (“by mutual agreement”) the resignation of the director of the FDA’s controversial Center for Devices and Radiological Health, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, had approved 228 devices without adequate testing between 2003 and 2007.

Of course, there have been shortcomings in Obama’s approach. Some of his appointments have been less than stellar. Yet history rarely moves in leaps and bounds, and, by just about any reasonable standard, Obama’s approach to regulation has been extremely impressive.

It’s possible, however, that politics may soon intrude. In 1993 Clinton, too, attempted to revive the regulatory agencies by appointing well-qualified personnel and increasing funding. But, after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they managed to cut Clinton’s budget proposals and delay or block the implementation of regulations. If Democrats lose Congress this November, the same thing could happen again. In that case, what has been Obama’s most significant achievement to date would come to naught–and liberals would have yet another reason to despair.

Excerpted from The New Republic (Feb. 18, 2010), a debate-fueling biweekly that examines politics, foreign policy, and culture. www.tnr.com

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