"Government is not the solution to our problems. It's the problem."
Ronald Reagan, Inaugural Address, 1981
Fast forward twenty years. Over 100 people are dead in the wake of accidents caused faulty Ford Explorer tires manufactured by Firestone/Bridgestone. Since 1980, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration - the federal agency responsible for overseeing traffic safety - has seen its budget decline by 36% in real terms to $392 million. During the same time period, the NHTSA rule-making staff has shrunk from 103 people to 62. Calls from consumer advocates to give the agency broader recall authority have been met by stone silence in Congress where, until recently, members often sided with the auto industry in its regulatory battles with the NHTSA. Nor are auto or tire companies required by law to report known defects to the federal government.
Can there be any doubt that the granting of stricter regulatory authority to the NHTSA would have saved lives in this case? Just how many lives is open to question.
At the Congressional hearings held after the Firestone story became public, the Republican chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee - John McCain - called for beefing up NHTSA enforcement powers. Most of his colleagues agreed.
The scene was reminiscent of the response on Capitol Hill after the Valujet plane crash several years ago. At the time, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle called for greater regulatory oversight over airline safety by the Federal Aviation Administration. Not even Republicans were willing to turn airline safety over to the airlines. In both cases, one only wishes the call for greater scrutiny had occurred before so many lives were lost.
And it's not just about auto and airplane safety. It's about the food we eat. In 1997, a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria was making people seriously ill in the Midwest. The cause was traced to a meat processing plant owned by Hudson Foods in Nebraska. The company voluntarily recalled 25 million pounds of potentially deadly hamburger meat. I say "voluntarily recalled" because the USDA to this day lacks the authority to order a recall and close offending plants. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman would like that authority; but the beef industry, like the auto industry, has friends on Capitol Hill.
Then there is the story of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the federal agency charged with the mission of warning consumers about potentially defective products. Currently, the agency lacks the power to crack down on companies that fail to report known product defects. Such authority would been valuable in the case of Consolidated Industries, which manufactured a gas-heating furnace which proved to be a fire hazard. Unfortunately for the CSPS and to the thirty families whose homes were damaged by the faulty furnaces, the company filed for bankruptcy before the CSPS could issue a warning or product recall.
The notion that government has the capacity to do good has been under siege since Ronald Reagan assumed the Presidency twenty years ago. The greatest anti-government vote in the history of the United States took place in 1994, the year the Republicans took control of Congress. One of the principal clauses in the Contract With America called for the neutering and downsizing of federal regulatory agencies. It seemed like good politics at the time. Polls showed that an astounding 63% of Americans agreed with this statement: "Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good."
Armed with this data, Newt Gingrich aimed one of his earliest attacks on the Food and Drug Administration. Calling the agency the "America's leading job killer," he first proposed with a straight face that the drug approval process be moved to the private sector. After prodding from the drug companies, Congress settled on "streamlining" the approval process for new drugs and medical equipment. Hopefully, Americans won't pay the same price they did in lost lives from harmful drugs as they did with defective tires.
Most of us hate government red tape and bureaucracy, but surely we want the airlines we fly, the products we use, the drugs we take, and the food we eat to be safe. One simple lesson of the Firestone debacle is that there is a steep price to be paid for government bashing.
The writer is founder and President of the Institute for Government Renewal, a Washington-based think tank.