Regulations I can believe in

REGULATIONS I CAN BELIEVE IN…. When considering the kind of changes we’ve seen between this administration and the last, we tend to think about economic, national security, legal, and social policy. More generally, we might also think about the shift away from corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

But one of the most dramatic changes is one that often goes overlooked: “A new age of regulation is well under way in Washington.”

In a burst of rule-making, federal agencies have toughened or proposed new standards to protect Americans from tainted eggs, safeguard construction workers from crane accidents, prevent injuries from baby walkers and even protect polar bears from extinction.

Over the last year, the Obama administration has pressed forward on hundreds of new mandates, while also stepping up enforcement of rules by increasing the ranks of inspectors and imposing higher fines for violations. […]

[T]he new aggressiveness reflects the new cops on the beat, and the contrast with the Bush administration is an intentionally sharp one. While the Bush administration mostly favored voluntary compliance by industry, senior Obama administration officials argue that carefully crafted regulation can be a positive force.

“We start from the perspective that we all want a cleaner environment, longer lives, improved safety,” said Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews major regulations. “Smart regulation can make people’s lives better off.”

Industry leaders are complaining, a development that is neither surprising nor compelling. As the FDA gets stronger, after being gutted under the Bush administration, it’s to be expected that industries are going to lament new burdens. But after a little too much “e. coli conservatism,” I much prefer the new-and-improved way.

I do wish this area of public policy was more appreciated, though. It’s the kind of detail few Americans consider before voting, but when a president takes office, he/she does more than just become the head of the White House and a political party; he/she also leads a large federal bureaucracy with vast regulatory power.

Over the last three decades, through Republican administrations, that regulatory power was deliberately stunted, favoring business interests over consumer interests. The bureaucracy has some discretion over which laws are enforced more vigorously, and the Bush administration, for example, chose a lax attitude when it came to consumer and worker protections. Obama, in contrast, is using the executive branch in a very different, more progressive fashion, emphasizing strong federal oversight, and evidence-based analysis, with the public’s interests in mind.

John Judis had a good item on this earlier in the year.

[T]here 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), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), 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 twentieth century. Taken as a whole, Obama’s revival of these agencies is arguably the most significant accomplishment of his first year in office. […]

Republican presidents didn’t just undermine scientific administration by making poor appointments; they also slashed or held down the regulatory agencies’ budgets, forcing them to cut personnel. This was a particular problem in the all-important area of enforcement: If regulatory agencies can’t conduct inspections and enforce rules, it doesn’t matter how tough those rules are…. Now Obama is reversing these trends.

Judis added that Obama’s regulatory appointments “could not be more different” from those we’ve seen in recent years, and “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.”

Good. I know we’re dealing with obscure government officials in unseen government offices, but it’s hard to overstate how much of a difference this makes in Americans’ daily lives.

Of course, it’s worth noting that in the Clinton administration’s first two years, the president tried to revamp regulatory agencies, too. Republicans took over Congress in 1995, and blocked many of those efforts.

Here’s hoping history doesn’t repeat itself.