When government agencies don’t do their jobs, the result can be . . . death. It would be easier to write “the result is often tragic,” or “lives are often lost.” But saying that something doesn’t happen, “often with tragic results,” is a commonplace in our language. It lands only a deflecting blow on the way we think about the world. When you talk about death — and responsibility for real people dying — you’re getting closer to reality. And the reality is that nearly every disaster that’s not a force of nature can be linked to inaction at a government agency, or more accurately, to people at government agencies who aren’t taking their work seriously.
Out-of-control financial shenanigans, from CDOs to subprime loans? Look to the Treasury, the Fed, and the SEC. Hurricane Katrina? It’s already been determined that much of the responsibility rested with the Army Corps of Engineers. And you’ll remember the Minerals Management Service and how it didn’t police safety standards at offshore oil platforms.
Andrew Lehren of the New York Times brings us one more example — an agency you’ve never heard of whose inaction and irresponsibility are part of the reason seven people were killed in San Bruno, California on September 9. Lehren writes that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, has been shown to be ineffective in “several independent government reviews, going back several years, [that] have found systemic problems with the way [it] enforces safety rules. The result? More “tragic results” and “lost lives.” (One look at the faces of people who died and images from this tragedyhelps move it out of the realm of cliché).
At the heart of Americans’ dissatisfaction with Democrats, Republicans, and politicians in general is not the legislative process or politicians’ foibles, as irritating as those things can be day in, day out. At the heart of people’s anger is real concern and fear about their safety and the safety of people they care about. In the richest country in the world, life remains unpredictable in large part because of government agencies that don’t push harder to inspect, monitor, and get in the face of life’s daily problems. Pushing them harder to do their jobs is our job.