Heeding the message of the electorate

Henry Miller Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute.
Font Size:

Democrats on Tuesday received the worst drubbing, nationally and locally, suffered by either political party in more than half a century. This battering of epic proportions, primarily a repudiation of the economic policies and high-handedness of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, was also an implicit condemnation of a left-wing regulatory philosophy that unnecessarily burdens those who create jobs and wealth.

In his stunningly clueless press conference on Wednesday, the president admitted that “America succeeds only when business is succeeding” but rejected any hint that his administration’s policies are excessively regulatory or anti-business, and he dismissed a major redirection of policy. Once again, he attributed the electoral meltdown to failures in process and communication and seemed oblivious to the linkage between personnel choices and policy directions.

Many federal agency policies are not only ideological and unwise but do violence to Americans’ life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to coin a phrase. The Democratic Congress often not only failed to investigate such policies but actually encouraged them. With Republicans in control of the House, we should now see pressure on executive branch departments and agencies to curb their excesses and adopt more constructive approaches.

How can we identify the worst of the excesses and flawed 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 (including 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 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.

What does this have to do with Congress? First, the most senior executive branch appointments require Senate confirmation. With their newfound gains, although they do not control the Senate, Republicans will better be able to block appointees they deem unacceptable.

Second, as long as both the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party, the congressional oversight mandated by the Constitution is ineffective. Republicans’ control of the House ensures that at least some of the Obama administration’s malfeasance and nonfeasance will be investigated and exposed, with committees constantly hauling the bureaucrats into hearings and requiring them to provide explanation and copious documentation. And with President Obama henceforth looking ahead to an uphill second-term reelection campaign, he’ll be leery of front-page headlines that expose his administration’s mistakes and misdeeds.

Finally, many influential House Democrats used their chairmanships to prod many of the agencies to innovation- and job-killing excesses. The standouts included Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has oversight over the FDA; Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who headed the subcommittee that appropriates funds for the FDA; and Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee. (All were reelected but, of course, will lose their chairmanships.) None has real understanding of how the FDA works or what its real problems and needs are. That’s deplorable, given their responsibilities and the fact that within Pallone’s district are the headquarters of many of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

On election night, a subdued Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), the Republican whip, repeatedly made the point that rather than giving Republicans a mandate, voters were granting his party a second chance — a chance to return to the basic principles of economic austerity and smaller and less intrusive government. But given years of profligate spending and expansive government, turning the tide will not be easy or rapid. There will need to be some cooperation between the political parties, borne not of affection for one another but for mutual self-interest.

The people have spoken. Aggressive policy and personnel changes now can begin to refloat the sinking ship of government and to relieve many Americans’ growing frustration and disgust with politics and politicians. The president must take the first bold step, not by rhetorical commitments to work with the new Congress and a determination to “communicate” more effectively, but by cleaning house of the worst of his ideologues and incompetents.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His most recent book is “The Frankenfood Myth.”