The Washington Post published an investigative piece Monday that describes in detail how OSHA was rendered all but ineffective under the anti-regulation Bush administration. It allowed industry representatives and lobbyists enormous influence on the process, often overriding decisions made by experienced regulators backed up by scientific data. The story is far from surprising. In fact, such a regulatory approach that put the concerns and fears of particular industries and interests above sensible -- not radical -- precautions has become government-wide.
Lax government oversight, if not outright opposition to many regulatory schemes, has become a way of life over the past eight years, and it's had an effect on everything from the environment to federal prosecutions to shoddy or dangerous consumer goods. Weak regulation and oversight contributed to our financial and housing mess.
President-elect Obama and a Democratic Congress will crack down. In fact, Obama has set a high bar for regulation, vowing that policy will be guided not by ideology or special interests, but by a respect for "the integrity of the scientific processs." Let's hope he means that. Without adherence to scientific judgments regulation can swing either way depending upon the ideological bent of those in power. And science can just as easily rule out regulatory actions as rule them in. The ongoing dispute over the safety of vaccines is an especially good example. Some celebrities have helped popularize the notion that there is a link between autism and preservatives in vaccines despite the fact there is no scientific evidence backing them up. Obama (and GOP opponent John McCain) cheerfully joined the bandwagon during the campaign, which made doctors and scientists crazy because of the risk that more and more parents will skip vaccinations. That could lead to a rise in dangerous childhood diseases that once were regarded as defeated.
Scientific evidence and theories aren't always clear and acting upon scientific conclusions is an all too human process. But when appropriate, science should be at the core of any argument for regulating action or inaction.
Changing the long inaction of the Bush administration on multiple fronts will take considerable time. Not only does the legislative and regulatory process move slowly, but many agencies have been gutted and it could take years to build up a new cadre of experienced investigators and inspectors. Obama and the Democrats will have to hunt for the largest problems and set priorities. And it will have to guard against overreaction that can turn business into the enemy. Regulation can be effective and protect Americans without overburdening or demonizing businesses.