Free Agency

From Understanding Government’s archives, what we expect (and what we get) from the White House and federal agencies.

Debt ceiling debate is just a preview to the main attraction

Matt Miller, Washington Post columnist and a Board member at Understanding Government, points out today that “averting calamity [has become] the modern measure of success” in American politics.  We’re so busy navigating our way out of crises that there’s no time to solve national problems or tackle the biggest questions we face as a nation. If President Obama and the Congress agree to raise the debt ceiling, Miller writes, “we’ll be treated to a news conference in which our leaders congratulate themselves for raising the debt limit.” Instead, we should be focusing on solving America’s biggest problems.  Miller riffs on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s well-known phrase (more…)

What is the EPA? It’s the Environmental Protection Agency

Businesses survive if they are healthy in every possible way.  They need ideas, energy, people, and the ability to solve problems. This includes problems posed by government regulation.  The head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, is facing a lot of heat from business leaders, as John Broder’s thoughtful overview in the New York Times makes clear.   But whatever the EPA does, it’s not trying to make life difficult for businesses — it’s trying to protect the environment.  And in the end, as Elizabeth Shogren reports on NPR, EPA’s regulations don’t actually make life all that hard for businesses.

More police = less crime*

The asterisk is because crime statistics are tough to pin down.  As Matt Blake recently reported for Understanding Government, crime numbers are generally down around the U.S. — but people who live in the cities where crime stats are down aren’t really buying it.

In cities with fewer cops on the street, crime is definitely up — as Brian Reed’s NPR report on Newark and several other U.S. cities makes painfully clear.

Five feet high and rising (the ocean, that is) at Hampton Roads

Darryl Fears reports on a realistic approach to climate change in a great Washington Post snapshot of the area around Hampton Roads, Virginia.  Including the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, this part of the country is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels because the land itself is sinking due to long-term geological processes. In a few generations, Virginia Beach could be left without a beach, and the Norfolk Naval Station could be more underwater than even the Navy likes to be. (more…)

Mountaintop mining: When government agencies need to be aggressive

More and more authoritative scientific studies are saying — categorically — that mountaintop mining is dangerous to people’s health and the environment, and Allen Hershkowitz at NRDC is calling for the government to take action.  He calls for the National Research Council to look at these reports and issue its own opinion.  Until that happens, he says that

the US EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior should implement a categorical moratorium on the issuance of new permits, regardless of a mine’s size or location.

If mountaintop mining is stopped, it will inevitably be called a sign of “aggressive government action.”  On the other hand, stopping private companies from severing mountains in America’s last wildernesses would seem to be the perfect example of healthy conservatism.

That old saw about business opposing regulation

In a radio story that would be just perfect on television, NPR’s Chris Arnold explores the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s decision to draft new safety regulations for table saws. Table saws injure more than 4000 people per year — meaning fingers and even hands getting cut off. Now an inventor has come up with a great new way to stop saw blades within 5/1000 of a second that they come into contact with human skin. It’s a great idea, and a great example of American ingenuity. But predictably, as Arnold reports, the power saw industry is opposing the CPSC’s decision to “a new regulation package which is likely to be released for public comment by the end of September.”

An apple a day . . . or not

Almost every day I put an apple in my son’s lunch because it’s one of the few fruits he eats.  While I worry about his limited palate, I’ve always thought, “well, at least he’s eating an apple a day,” as the saying goes.  So the USDA’s announcement that apples contain the highest concentration of pesticide residue of any produce – and are ranked number one on the Environment Working Group’s list of the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables – was a punch to the gut. (more…)

Convictions on Wall Street: Did Hell just freeze over?

No one has been arrested for crimes related to the subprime mortgage crisis and the implosion of the U.S. economy.  Let’s face it — we don’t have enough of the comfortable kinds of jails to hold the thousands of denizens of Wall Street who were responsible for it (lightbulb! job creation through the construction of minimum security prisons!).

But as Chad Bray reports in the Wall Street Journal,the federal government is having some success prosecuting inside traders, with Messrs. Zvi Goffer, Emanuel Goffer, and Michael Kimelman the latest to be convicted of using non-public information to soak the investing public.  An appeal is expected, but if the conviction stands, these three individuals who sought to get rich quick could have 20 years in federal prison to think about where they went wrong.  And the SEC and the Justice Department have another success in fighting the latest species of organized crime.

Seeing, hearing, and speaking the truth about Yucca Mountain

When a government project is described with terms like “case study in government dysfunction and bureaucratic inertia” and “epic fiasco,” there appears to be no upside.  The planned nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, as Joel Achenbach and Brian Vastag report it in the Washington Post, fully deserves these labels.  After the government spent$15 billion over nearly three decades to build a five-mile deep tunnel for radioactive waste storage, it turned out that the facility wasn’t “as geologically isolated as hoped,” meaning that it can leak hazardous materials into the surrounding water supply.  When you’re talking about uranium and plutonium, there’s only one possible response: don’t build it. (more…)

Obama administration moves the dial on smart energy grid

It’s  a start.  In today’s world, $250 million is just not a lot of money, but as Brian Vastag reports in the Washington Post, anything that helps move America move beyond its “early-20th-century power grid” is a fairly drastic change from the status quo.  White House science adviser John Holdren has announced the Obama administration’s plan to upgrade rural electric lines with $250 million in loans and to “work closely with the nation’s power companies as they invest in new power technologies.”  There is also a concept for a “research hub” on smart grid strategies. (more…)