Oil and Water

The BP disaster has revealed a problem that is every bit as challenging as cleaning up the Gulf: how to reconcile two opposing visions of how government should work.

The ability of nature to frustrate the will of man was already on full display in the Gulf of Mexico following the deadly explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig when the ability of man to frustrate and embarrass himself came into focus as well. Apparently, the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency charged with regulating oil and gas operations on the outer continental shelf, believed that despite the catastrophic environmental disaster unfolding before it, the time was still right to drill, baby, drill. Even as oil gushed from the ocean floor, the MMS issued seventeen new permits and nineteen environmental waivers for offshore operations. This action was so tone-deaf that MMS director Elizabeth Birnbaum was forced to resign, and she was soon followed by associate director Chris Oynes. The house has been cleaned. Unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t.

In a strange political season that has given rise to the tea party movement and energized a wave of conservative voters, the calamity in the Gulf raises one of the most volatile issues in American politics: What kind of government do we want? A government, as Rick Perry is fond of saying, that secures the border and delivers the mail and then gets out of the way? Or a government that recognizes that powerful interest groups have the ability to undermine the public interest to their own benefit and enters the fray to level the playing field? Big government or small? The argument goes back to the respective visions of America—an industrial and commercial powerhouse or a nation of yeoman farmers—as seen by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the late eighteenth century. These competing visions continue to dominate American politics more than two hundred years later.

The massive spill has revealed a problem that reaches beyond the Gulf Coast. It is one more instance in which regulatory agencies like the MMS have failed to protect the public. One does not have to have a long memory: the lack of stringent enforcement of safety laws by the Mine Safety and Health Administration before the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, in West Virginia; the ability of Toyota to persuade regulators to limit or avoid safety recalls and rules concerning uncontrolled acceleration; the warning by the Government Accountability Office that the Food and Drug Administration was not doing enough to protect the national food supply; the failure of the FDA to ensure the quality of children’s medications made by Johnson & Johnson; and, of course, the ineptness of financial regulators who didn’t foresee and couldn’t

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