Opinion

The germ of regulation spreads

Natasha Mayer Political Consultant

Pundits of every political persuasion love to lecture Americans about “how it really works in Washington,” probably to convey some sexy inside knowledge of backdoor deal-making that an ordinary, pea-brained citizen couldn’t possibly understand, or to casually explain away the absurd rules and regulations that politicians and bureaucrats inflict on U.S. citizens. Ever wonder how it really works? Not the big stuff, the aircraft carriers, bridges or entitlements, but the little rules and directives affecting your everyday life?

In an effort to see how regulations are born, I went deep underground, literally. Picture, if you will, a room far under the Capitol’s dome, a group of fifty gathered to watch the sober PowerPoint presentations of three scientists, aimed at convincing members of Congress to call for a chemical ban. The anemic greeter offers eight separate glossy pamphlets bestowing deeply researched suggestions on saving the environment, one bacteria at a time. The topic: how to rid the world of the chemicals — known as antimicrobials — used to kill germs. Yes, I was surrounded by people who think the government should ban soaps that kill bacteria and reduce the chance of infections.

In the chamber, a Nancy Pelosi look-alike greets the assembled with demands of banning the alleged menace and apologizing for the lack of star power actual members of Congress. Everybody checks their smart phones.

The scientists are straight out of central casting: The Teutonic giant, the pretty know-it-all, and the earnest experimenter with funky fonts and cheap shoes. Al Gore, they’re not. Slide after slide, they solemnly speak of “very low traces,” “not statistically significant,” “how much we don’t know,” “we don’t have the reports,” “may lead,” “more testing necessary…” And honestly, if you’re a research post-doctoral fellow assistant professor on tenure track, it’s publishing the studies that require more study that pays the note on that second-hand Prius. In the spirit of full disclosure, I may have tuned out for a moment after the German said, “Imagine you’re a fish…”

These germ-killing chemicals are prevalent in our homes. Used since the 1960’s and proven so effective in sterilizing hospital personnel that they were added to hundreds of household products that benefitted immensely: soaps, acne medicine, toothpaste, shaving cream, even socks. Proven safe in Australia, Canada and Europe, they continue to effectively prohibit the spread of disease. Since they go down the drain, they’re found in tiny (parts per million) amounts in wastewater, just like every other chemical in our lives, but the green police always pick up the scent of sewage and demand investigation.

Despite the lack of any convincing science, the moderator wrapped up the briefing saying her organization was part of a growing movement and had collected thousands of signatures urging Congress to take action. There was a quick question-and-answer period until one of the scientists actually said something I agreed with, “now is the time for common sense, not more science.” Yes, if some people used some common sense instead of blindly signing petitions for organizations that advocate against pesticide use to fight bedbugs, a lot of wasted time and disease might be prevented. I was sent on my way with a fistful of paper (I guess the “Save the Trees” briefing was down the hall) and wandered back up into the light along with the environmentalists and Congressional staffers, still checking their smart phones.

And that’s the way it works. The organizations pay the scientists to research and present their dubious findings, the scientists lecture members of Congress, who send their staffs to sit through the slide shows and later tell their bosses to write the bureaucrats to ban the chemicals that protect us from the germs so we get sick and need more Obamacare so that the organizations can…see, you get it. It’s really not so complicated, there’s actually a very simple name for this sort of thing, but they’re trying to ban the soap my mother would wash my mouth out with for using it.

Natasha Mayer is a political consultant in Washington, D.C. Her Twittter handle is @natashamayer