A guide to blaming Obama for BP
I was in China while most of this was playing out, but it seems really weird to judge President Obama on whether he has responded to the BP spill emotionally enough, or whether he's been able to stop a oil leak 5,000 feet below sea level. If you're looking to pin this on Obama, Tim Ferholz proffers a far more convincing approach:
The real failure here was in prevention. It was clear when Obama took office in 2009 that the Mineral Management Service, which regulates offshore oil drilling, was in desperate need of reform. At the time, I wrote a column about how the new administration could succeed at governing; one chief example was reforming the MMS, which had recently been exposed for a "culture of ethical failure." An influential transition briefing book prepared by the Center for American Progress discussed the need for reform of offshore drilling regulation. And though the president appointed Liz Birnbaum, a former congressional staffer, to head the agency, it's clear that she lacked the mandate, resources, and ability to change it. Birnbaum resigned last Thursday.
We know that BP told the government in 2008 that it could handle a spill 10 times larger than the current spill, a claim that was most certainly wrong and was alarmingly lacking in details about responding to a deep-water spill. We know that the MMS cut regulatory corners to meet a 30-day response deadline on a BP request that it could have delayed. Perhaps most damning, we know that in the weeks before the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, the MMS approved a number of changes to the well, including a redesign that might have made the well more vulnerable. One of the requests was approved five minutes after it was submitted.
It strains credulity to suggest that presidents will enter office and zero in on failures at tiny regulatory agencies. But their underlings should. And they appoint their underlings. So insofar as Ken Salazar fell down on the job, it's Obama's fault in a "buck stops here" sort of way.
But this is also evidence of what a bad idea it is to routinely elect people who make it a point to degrade the capacity of regulatory agencies. If your regulators are going to be effective, the commitment to their effectiveness has to be continuous, not episodic. If every other administration has to come into office and nurse a sabotaged bureaucracy back to health, they're going to miss some of the problems, and much of the damage will already have been done.
So though Obama deserves to take his lumps on this one, Americans should take the lesson of recent disasters, from the financial crisis to the BP spill to Katrina, and realize that they actually like having good regulators and they get upset when their regulators fail them. Which might mean it's a good idea to elect people who are interested in making sure regulators don't stop doing their jobs every couple of years, as opposed to people who think that the best regulation is no regulation, and the second-best regulation is whatever the relevant industry tells them it is.
Photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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