We need divided government

The Obama administration continues to demonstrate how personnel choices become policy choices.  There are innumerable examples of political appointees’ malfeasance (“the performance by a public official of an act that is legally unjustified, harmful, or contrary to law”) and nonfeasance (“the omission of an act that should have been performed”).

One of the most egregious was the squelching by senior Justice Department officials of investigations of members of the New Black Panther Party who were filmed using baseball bats and verbal threats to intimidate elderly white voters at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008.  An isolated incident?  Not according to Christopher Coates, the former chief of the Justice Department’s voting section, who said that departmental bosses ordered that enforcement of the Voting Rights Act “should not be extended to white voters but should be limited to protecting racial, ethnic and language minorities.”  You don’t need to be a constitutional law scholar to see that this is an abrogation of the principle of equal treatment under the law.  It is racism, pure and simple.

Many other federal agency policies are not only ideological and unwise but do violence to the citizenry’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to coin a phrase.  Often, Congress not only does not investigate these policies but actually encourages them.

How can we identify the worst of the excesses and flawed policies?  Well, let’s start with regulatory policies.  Federal agencies are required by presidential executive order to prepare a regulatory impact assessment in support of any economically significant regulatory action, an important component of which is a benefit-cost analysis.  Nevertheless, because politics and special interests (which include regulators themselves) often prevail, all regulations are not created equal, not even remotely equal.  Some serve society — and taxpayers — well, while others are so wrongheaded and costly that they are actually harmful.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) analyses of major regulations often show wide disparities between benefits and costs.  For example, nutrition labeling of meat and poultry yields benefits of $1.75 billion against costs of $245 million, while wind standards for manufactured housing have benefits of $79 million but cost $511 million and standards for double-hull boats yield benefits of $15 million but cost $641 million.

The Environmental Protection Agency fares particularly badly in OMB analyses.  Of the 30 least cost-effective regulations throughout the government, the EPA had imposed no fewer than 17.  For example, the agency’s restrictions on the disposal of land that contains certain wastes prevent 0.59 cancer cases per year — about three cases every five years — and avoid $20 million in property damage, at an annual cost of $194 to $219 million.

In order to revise many of these government policies and programs, we need personnel changes — which could be accomplished, literally, overnight.  Most important federal government business is conducted not by the handful of cabinet-level officials, but by those at the next rung who occupy senior positions at the myriad departments and agencies and perform pivotal day-to-day decision- and policymaking.  Few of these appointments require congressional confirmation; the incumbents serve at the pleasure of the president.  They seldom receive much public or media attention, but they are critical, especially at “gatekeeper” government agencies such as the FDA, EPA and USDA, which must approve products such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides and genetically engineered plant varieties before they can be marketed.