Regulatory reform an eternal tug-of-war

June 03, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

The new year opened with a major feature story (The Washington Post, Jan. 4, “Longtime Tug of War On Mine Safety”) that brought back memories of history lessons about the “Progressive Era.” The story was a reminder that some things never change. One constant is the stubborn resistance of corporate management to even the most rational attempts at regulation.

Anti-regulatory actions are grounded on practical (money) considerations and on ideological terms such as the argument that regulations are an invasion of the free market. It does not matter that this resistance results in physical damage or death to laborers or harm to the health of consumers. The recent report of events in mines in West Virginia makes it clear that mine safety must be carefully monitored along with food, drugs and other consumer products.

While this story is about the many mining regulations violated at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 and the death of 29 miners, there is also the record of major mine disasters dating to a 1909 explosion that resulted in the death of 259 “boys and men.” Sadly, these reports show a pattern that is repeated again and again. First, there are public expressions of sorrow to the widows at the mine. Then, there are charges of violations against the owners of the mines. Next is a half-hearted effort to improve on the failed regulations designed only to reduce tension. Finally, mine management regroups and returns again to the policy of delay and legal maneuvering to stall enforcement.

One often-used practice of delay is called “regulatory waiver,” which is a way to legally circumvent mining laws. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had approved 30 petitions of regulatory waivers for Massey Energy (mine owner) to operate its mines outside of safety mandates — more than any other coal company. This is but one of the ploys used to blunt the force of regulations.

This sordid record was well known to one of those present in 1968 when the widows of 78 miners killed in an explosion at Consol No. 9 in West Virginia made a tragic plea. These grieving widows stuck their fingers into his chest, and cried in anguish to a young congressman, Ken Hechler. “Why don’t you do something?” Now, at age 96, this retired legislator was again present when the 29 miners lost their lives at the Upper Big Branch mine. He made it known that another reason for these mine disasters was that, “None of it would have happened if regulators had enforced the law.”

This opinion was given substantial support in an independent opinion of a state investigation report (The Washington Post, May 22, 2011) that flatly pointed out that “A mine owner was reckless with the safety of its workers, and state and federal regulators failed to do their jobs.” This is but a sad repeat of old, tragic news.

At present, progressive regulatory thought is on the defensive. Its historic, magnificent heritage is being disparaged by a brash aggregate who are fond of repeating a tired, old mantra of former President Reagan, who said, “Government is not the solution to the problem — it is the problem.” What world have they been living in to ignore the fact that it was corporate misdeeds that brought this nation to near ruin twice in our lifetime.

Progressive reforms have been evident in reform movements since a productive period between 1901 and 1916. A wide range of reforms were incubated that have hatched periodically since then. Such different personalities as “Teddy” Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson have proposed progressive programs that advance the ideals of a good society. Historian Allan Nevins has expressed this vision as the will “… to purify the existing process of government in order to effect more completely traditional aims.”

The constitutional mandate to “promote the general welfare” of the whole American society can be found in all attempts at progressive reforms. This legacy of gradual improvement will be trashed in the current rash of anti-government rhetoric. Long ago, James Madison gave a simple and adequate rationale for government: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary...” We have known for some time that men are not angels and must be regulated. Experience also shows that men who are not angels will engage in an eternal tug of war against the most obviously rational restraints.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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