E Coli Conservatism

Ken AshfordAvian/Swine Flu, Health Care, RepublicansLeave a Comment

"E Coli conservatism", a phrase coined by Rick Perlstein several years ago, speaks to the call by conservatives to streamline or cut away at government services, and the consequences of such efforts.

We're experienceing e coli conservatism now, in the most literal sense of the phrase.

You've likely heard about the egg recall that's currently underway, in the wake of at least 1,300 salmonella-related illnesses spanning 22 states over the summer.  A midwest producer shipped tainted eggs to supermarkets across the country, causing more than 1,300 known infections — with more, possibly, to come. The company ran the kind of factory farming operation that, experts have long warned, made salmonella infection more likely. Its owner had previously paid millions in fines for violating labor and safety regulations. But nobody had inspected the plant and, as a result, nobody knew about the contamination until after people started getting sick.

But Jonathan Cohn reminds us:

This is not a story that begins with the administration of George W. Bush. It begins, instead, with the administration of Ronald Reagan. Convinced that excessive regulation was stifling American innovation and imposing unnecessary costs on the public, Reagan's team changed the way government makes rules.

Prior to the 1980s, agencies like the FDA had authority to finalize regulations on their own. Reagan changed that, forcing agencies to submit all regulations to the Office of Management and Budget, which cast a more skeptical eye on anything that would require the government or business to spend more money. The regulatory process slowed down and, in many cases, the people in charge of it became more skittish.

Clinton didn’t share Reagan's antipathy to regulation. Prodded by consumer advocates and more liberal Democrats, his administration announced its intention to impose new safety requirements on the egg industry. But that happened in 1999, a year before Clinton left office. When George W. Bush succeeded him, the administration’s posture reverted to its 1980s version.

Like Reagan, Bush was skeptical of government interference in the market. And, like Reagan, he appointed officials sympathetic to businesses that wanted to avoid the cost of complying with new federal rules. It was not until 2004, five years after Clinton had proposed the new egg rules, that the Bush Administration issued actual regulatory language. And by 2009, when Bush left office, the administration still had not finalized the rule.

William Hubbard, who was associate FDA commissioner from 1991 until 2005 and now advises the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, tells TNR that the delay was not accidental:

The FDA simply couldn’t get through to the White House. They were very hostile to regulation. … I was told that each time FDA tried to get the rule cleared through OMB, the response was that there were "not enough bodies in the street," — that the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths did not rise to the level to justify greater regulation of egg producers. Obviously, public health officials felt strongly that there was a strong justification, but the prevailing attitude at the time within the Administration was that regulation was an evil that should be avoided unless there was a compelling argument for government action.

The salmonella outbreak ought to remind many that the Republican crusade against government has its drawbacks.  Only government has the power to regulate and enforce businesses from the nefarious practices that led to this outbreak.  

In addition, the New York Times today has a piece on how the United States, suffering from deregulation fever, refused to vaccinate hens of the very same disease.  Smart, huh?

Sadly, I think the message will be lost.