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Leaking Laissez Faire 

“Strong government” requires clear mandates and authority to carry out those mandates.

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We simply must dispense with the euphemisms, like “oil spill.” To call this “tragedy of the commons” in the Gulf an “oil spill” is like calling the financial meltdown of 2008 a “temporary banking disruption.”

So with that cleared up, who’s to blame? Obviously, British Petroleum and Halliburton bear most of the blame. But the Bush/Cheney regime also bears much responsibility — “drill, baby, drill” was their mantra, collusion was their style. (For example, the Bush-appointed head of the Minerals Management Service is now the president of the National Oceans Industries Association, whose mission is to “secure reliable access to a favorable regulatory and economic environment for companies that develop the offshore energy resources.”) Nor did Obama’s new Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, move fast enough. He didn’t have his own MMS director in place until last summer, which resulted in a year and a half of MMS doing business as usual — not a good thing, as we are learning from the government scientists and engineers who report that for eight years their warnings were ignored and suppressed.

President Obama bluntly stated that the finger pointing going on amongst the oil CEOs is an “incredible spectacle” that reflects the all-too-cozy relationship between the government and the private sector. Yes, this disaster has its culprits, but more fundamentally it is the product of what can be termed, “systemic effects.”

Let me explain. We say that we have “big government,” but “big” doesn’t necessarily mean “strong.” “Strong government” requires clear mandates and authority to carry out those mandates.

Most federal agencies are given neither clear mandates nor requisite authority.

Which brings us to the Minerals Management Service.

Founded in 1982 by the anti-regulation Reagan White House, the MMS was, from its creation, a disaster waiting to happen — not because it was different than other Federal agencies, but because it wasn’t.The MMS is what Professor Theodore Lowi termed “a clientele agency” organized around an identifiable sector of the economy (e.g. the oil industry) and legally obliged to develop and maintain an orientation toward the interests that comprise this sector. Lowi’s most telling point: Clientele agencies are not intended to govern; rather they are expected to facilitate, encourage and promote.

In the process of serving the clientele, the distinction between public and private, and vice versa, is blurred. Where does government begin and corporate end? The line is drawn, ad hoc, by MMS and its client. If MMS is informed by BP not to worry, MMS is likely not to worry and to give BP its approval. Informality becomes standard operating procedure. This was the insidious relationship that allowed the Gulf disaster to happen.

The military, because it has a clearer mandate as well as resources, and is acculturated by a professional ethos, sometimes does a better job of maintaining boundaries between private and public.

None did it so dramatically as the feared “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” Admiral Hyman Rickover. Read this (from Patrick Tyler’s book Running Critical) and ask yourself: Had we had government regulators like Rickover heading up MMS, would this disaster have occurred?

Back in 1971 General Dynamics was having serious trouble with a very large R&D contract it had with the Navy to design and build a new class of submarines. Overruns were coming with the morning mail. Admiral Rickover was not pleased. In an attempt to give the project a new look, the company replaced its CEO with one David Lewis. Lewis had a long history of working with various Air Force programs. He had friends throughout the Pentagon.

Once on the job he tried several times to make an appointment with Rickover. Finally, while in D.C., he decided to see if he could get in to see the Admiral and on the spur of the moment, called from Washington National: “Is the Admiral available, this is David Lewis.” The secretary hesitated. Before she could speak Rickover came on the line with, “What the hell do you want?” Lewis tried to introduce himself but before he could get a word past his name, Rickover shouted into the phone, “BLOOD SUCKERS ON THE FACE OF HUMANITY!” Then it got worse:

“I’ll be goddamned, this is just what I would expect from General Dynamics. Here you are in Washington. Your company doesn’t know what it is doing. It cheats the government. It can’t run a shipyard. It’s full of loafers and idlers and here is the new chief executive office and what is he doing? Is he trying to clean up the company? Is he trying to stop his people from screwing up? No, he is glad-handing around Washington like a politician. I’ll tell you something, Mr. Lewis. I’ve got no time for you. I’ve got plenty of important things to do, and when I need you for something, I’ll call you!”

Now fast forward: During the Bush era, what do you suppose would have happened to the head of MMS had he dared to dress down one of these oil CEOs, all of whom had preferred access across his clientele agency, and, through Dick Cheney, directly into the Oval Office?

To change MMS culture and protect the public against a disaster like this ever happening again, the agency’s mandate must be made clearer, its grant of authority re-specified, and professionally competent administrators selected who are able and willing, from time to time, to pull a Rickover.

Given our country’s administrative history, compromised Congress, bureaucratic inertia and interest-group expectations, I’d say, good luck, Mr. President. Sisyphus faced shorter odds.

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