The BP spill is a failure not just of technology but ideology. That oil flows into the ocean from the deregulatory tide of the last 30 years. President Obama is right to compare the fiasco to 9/11. If he can frame the message more memorably than he did in his Oval Office address, Obama may yet use the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history to speed the transition to a green economy, just as George W. Bush used terrorism to refashion foreign policy. To do so, “deregulation”—once a Reaganite call to arms—must be transformed into an epithet. If the president can’t put the antigovernment, Tea Party types in their place now, when will he? The legacy of the American progressive tradition is on the line.
Regulating industry in the public interest began a century ago with Theodore Roosevelt. He was the last Republican president who argued strongly that government had to check the free market—or else it would kill people. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and the raft of health and safety rules that came out of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, showed that regulation could save lives. In the New Deal and post-war period, regulations grew like Topsy. Some, like the creation in 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency (the product of a Democratic Congress and the reluctant acquiescence of President Nixon), had a powerfully positive effect.
Regulating the economy, by contrast, often proved burdensome. Beginning with the deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, consumers benefited from relaxed economic strictures. But then came the Reagan era, when regulatory agencies were stocked with industry lackeys. The pendulum began swinging too far. Clinton Democrats, bolstered by new campaign donations from business, caught deregulatory fever.
This proved disastrous. Clinton protected environmental and safety regulations, but went along with Sen. Phil Gramm’s idea to free financial institutions from meaningful oversight. By the Bush presidency, deregulation was out of control. Dick Cheney convened secret meetings on energy that handed regulation to industry. In 2002 I reported that, during his transition, Bush had assigned an old friend to interview candidates for chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A guy named Ken Lay, of Enron.
So BP’s oil spill, or something like it, was inevitable. Without regulators to insist on unprofitable safety measures, prevent corner cutting, and plan for emergencies, the odds of a disaster shot up. It wasn’t just that the Denver office of the Minerals Management Service gave “in bed with industry” new meaning. Supervision across the government was so lax that every oil company had identical, pathetic gulf cleanup plans, which included references to walruses and other arctic mammals not found in the Gulf of Mexico—and a contact number for a wildlife expert who died in 2005. Congress, long in the pocket of the oil and gas industry, capped liability at $75 million, which is a bar bill at the golf club for these gents. More than 100 GOP members of Congress belong to a committee that attacked Obama’s plan to make BP set up a $20 billion escrow fund.
Conservatives are again trotting out the idea—slam-dunked by history—that energy and environmental regulations kill jobs. If we’d listened to them in the ’70s, we would be living in a cesspool of pollution. And if we listen to them now, and stay addicted to fossil fuels, we’ll miss out on the clean-energy technologies that are already changing the world. On the ballot this fall, it’s the 19th century vs. the 21st.
If you think I’m exaggerating, listen to the Republicans. Glenn Beck believes progressivism is “a cancer” and we should go back to the Gilded Age’s unfettered capitalism. Rush Limbaugh and his Capitol Hill stooges still oppose more stringent regulation and won’t renounce their “Drill, baby, drill!” platform. When Obama said that hazardous deep-water drilling was the result of a scarcity of shallow-water oil, they blamed Democrats for preventing drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. In fact, it’s states like California and Florida—the states whose prerogatives conservatives claim in principle to respect—that have been most obstructionist.
The president was right to forgo aggressive BP bashing until he had secured the liability fund. The key is to attack the idea of deregulation—and that pressing BP is a “shakedown,” as Rep. Joe Barton put it—without a broad-based assault on all business. Now is the time for Obama to renew some of the older progressive traditions that have helped make the country great—to agitate and regulate in what we must, once again, define boldly as the public interest.
Jonathan Alter is also the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.