The Gulf oil spill, the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and even the recall of millions of Toyotas for unintended acceleration all have something in common. They were instances not just of industry failures but also of breakdowns in the government's regulatory process.
Democrats blame the Bush administration, which may or may not be fair. But it's clear the Obama administration is taking a much more aggressive approach to rule-making.
The administration has instituted new rules governing everything from how long airline passengers can be held on the tarmac to the amount of combustible dust that can be produced at factories.
'The No. 1 Priority'
One example of that more forceful approach to regulation can be found at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In 2008, Congress acted to make baby cribs, the kind found in millions of American homes, safer. Thousands had been recalled over the years, because their sides could detach and trap infants between the side and the mattress.
The CPSC, the government agency that oversees the issue, had been working with the industry over the years to make the cribs safer. But when Inez Tenenbaum became the agency's chairman, the process dramatically quickened.
"When I got here, the commission said we will do cribs in the next few years," Tenenbaum says. "But I said no, we're going to make it the No. 1 priority on durable nursery equipment, because I've seen too many recalls on cribs.
"There were millions of drop-side cribs, and we're still continuing our investigation," she says. "But we're working with industry to get those off the market, and drop-side cribs will be banned."
Tenenbaum, a former state superintendent of education in South Carolina, says she believes in a fair but firm approach to regulating. Her job, she says, is to enforce the law.
"Americans want to be safe. And they expect their federal government to protect them," she says. "So that is what I'm here to do."
Carrots And Sticks
The Obama administration's approach, says David Michaels, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is a mix of sticks and carrots.
OSHA, he says, "just hired 100 new inspectors. We're increasing enforcement. [We] issued [the] largest fine in history, $87 million fine against BP following a series of events, but beginning with an explosion that killed 15 workers in a Texas City refinery explosion."
But along with raising fines against employers, Michaels says, OSHA also offers employers a free consultation service.
"Our people will tell you how to abate the hazards, how to make sure you don't get fined by OSHA and how to protect your workers," he says.
Democrats say it's a far cry from the approach of previous years, when the focus seemed solely aimed at accommodating industry.
Problems With Regulators
During the Bush administration, oil industry officials were appointed to the Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling. Two inspector-general reports have outlined a cozy relationship between regulators and the oil industry.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration has been faulted in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia for ineffectively enforcing mine safety laws.
Congressional hearings into Toyota's problems with unintended acceleration found the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ill-equipped to test modern electronic engine controls.
"The prevailing view of the Bush administration was that we could trust businesses to regulate themselves, trust the marketplace to do what's right," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA).
"Their view of government was so hostile that they didn't think government could do anything right -- and did everything to prove that point, by cutting back funds to these regulatory agencies and putting in cronies" to lead them, he says.
A Downside For Consumers?
The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which Waxman chairs, last week approved legislation stiffening safety standards for cars -- and requiring that they come with so-called black boxes to record data just before a collision.
That's the kind of approach to regulation that critics, such as James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation, say will lead to higher costs for consumers and increased unemployment.
"I think the Obama administration is much readier to pull out the regulatory guns without negotiation beforehand," Gattuso says, "without trying market solutions as thoroughly as previous administrations had done."
Given the anti-government feelings among some Americans, Gattuso says, the Obama administration's increased willingness to regulate may be a negative among voters. But administration officials disagree, arguing that the American people want safe workplaces, safe toys and safe cars.