It's the sort of thing that could do your heart good, watching conservative Republicans in Congress discover the importance of government safety regulation.
``Ford and Firestone had at a minimum a moral obligation to make sure that the products they sell to the American people and people in other countries are safe,'' throbbed Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. ``And yet they both failed to bring this issue to consumers' and the federal government's attention, at the cost of dozens of lives, I am afraid.''
Roared Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., ``We have to ask ourselves why we are in this mess and what we can do to make sure this never happens again.''
The occasion, of course, was the congressional hearing on the Ford-Firestone tire problems. With the assistance of expensive consultants in damage control -- in Washington, it's called ``spin,'' but on tire safety that's a touchy term -- executives of Bridgestone (which owns Firestone) insist it's a Ford SUV design problem, and Ford management declares indignantly it's a tire problem.
But congressmen seem to agree it's now a government problem.
When tread starts to peel off moving vehicles, hardly anybody in Washington stands up and declares it's a matter for the market to handle.
``Ford . . . failed to respond with the sense of urgency that one would expect when the safety of so many people rested on its shoulders,'' declared the shocked Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va. -- in his non-outraged identity, tobacco's best friend in the House.
When Big Tobacco's shoulders carried the safety of lots more people than fit into a Ford Explorer, Bliley defended its right to shrug.
This kind of safety issue is the responsibility of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and there was some legitimate pummeling of the agency for missing this one. But as the New York Times reported, the agency was one of the first targets of the Reagan revolution, with its budget cut in half. In real dollars, its budget is still one-third below what it was under President Carter.
Now, Shelby says he's ready to give the agency more money immediately.
Shelby, Tauzin and Bliley all are prominent symbols of the upheaval of 1994, when Republicans won control of Congress calling for less federal regulation -- and limits on corporate liability. Shelby and Tauzin were conservative Democrats who quickly switched over to the winners, and Bliley became Commerce Committee chairman, sharply shifting the panel's interests away from tobacco liability.
It would be wrong to say that previous political positions are being abandoned. Maybe we could just say they're being recalled.
Another player in last week's hearings had a dramatic moment in 1994 as well. That year, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recalled in his memoir, ``Locked in the Cabinet,'' a worker's head was crushed in a machine he was cleaning at the Bridgestone tire plant in Oklahoma City. Since the plant had, in Reich's phrase, ``a long history of gruesome deaths and injuries,'' the department proposed a $7.5 million fine and an emergency court order requiring Bridgestone to comply with safety rules.
Bridgestone threatened to close the plant, saying it didn't need Washington telling it how to run its affairs. Only after the emergency order was denied by an Oklahoma federal judge did Bridgestone keep the factory open.
The next year, testifying before the new Republican Congress, Reich was derided by a newly elected Oklahoma senator for acting on a report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- one of the biggest regulatory targets of the new regime.
Now in Washington, Bridgestone defenders are harder to find. It turns out that when federal regulators look away, it's not just a problem for workers, but for consumers.
And GOP congressmen want to know where the regulatory agency is, and run to give it more money.
Washington, of course, is a hard place to maintain a real ideological consistency. You think you're cruising along, secure in the belief that federal safety regulation is a dubious thing.
And then suddenly the wheels come off.
Sarasohn is an associate editor at The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. Distributed by Newhouse News Service.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press