Read the full memo (PDF)
The recent Sago Mine tragedy in West Virginia exposed government capture by the mining industry. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) uncovered repeated and serious safety violations at the mine over the last two years, issuing 273 citations, but never levied a fine of more than $440 and never threatened closure of the mine. This offered no deterrent to the mine’s owner, International Coal Group Inc.-which reported more than $110 million in net profits last year-and unsafe conditions were allowed to persist. Ultimately, 12 miners died when an explosion left them trapped hundreds of feet underground.
From the beginning, the Bush administration has run MSHA for the benefit of mining companies rather than the safety of miners. Shortly after taking office, President Bush appointed David Lauriski, who had worked in the mining industry for more than 30 years, as administrator of MSHA. Under Lauriski’s leadership, MSHA moved to weaken a host of safety standards-including air quality standards meant to protect miners from black lung and respiratory disease-and scale back penalties for safety violations. Last year, Lauriski resigned from his position shortly after the Labor Department’s inspector general found that MSHA management had improperly awarded no-bid contracts.
President Bush has repeatedly stated that his most fundamental responsibility is to protect the American people. Unfortunately, the administration has failed to meet this responsibility. Political cronyism, special-interest influence and conservative ideology are taking a mounting toll. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under the leadership of Michael Brown, who had no previous experience in disaster response, fell down on the job after the flooding of New Orleans, costing many their lives. As head of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Harvey Pitt, a former accounting industry executive, ignored clear warning signs of widespread accounting fraud that cheated investors out of billions and culminated in the collapse of Enron. And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to protect California consumers from market manipulation by energy companies-most prominently Enron-which led to rolling blackouts in 2000 and 2001; at the time, FERC was chaired by Nora Mead Brownell, who President Bush appointed to the position at the urging of disgraced Enron CEO Kenneth Lay.
The Bush administration has also left the American people vulnerable to other potentially disastrous consequences. For example, we are at greater risk of an outbreak of mad cow disease because of the administration’s inadequate testing program. Two years after an infected cow was discovered in Washington state, only one in 90 cows are tested for the disease (in comparison, the European Union tests one in four cows and Britain and Japan test every single one). Likewise, Americans remain highly vulnerable to identity theft-a year after data brokers ChoicePoint and LexisNexis lost personal information on tens of thousands of individuals to fraudsters and computer hackers-because the administration and Congress have been unwilling to buck industry opposition to meaningful protections. The story is the same from auto safety to preservation of our natural resources to protections for clean air and water. The administration has consistently put narrow special interests over the broad public interest.
Progressives believe in Abraham Lincoln’s vision of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Government should strive to protect and improve the public’s health, safety and general welfare. This means identifying public risks and vulnerabilities, adopting policies to prevent public harm, providing oversight to ensure laws and standards are followed, and making decisions out in the open, so government is accountable for results. These are straightforward principles of good government, yet they are now being subverted. Below we describe a progressive agenda for reinvigorating the government’s protective role and contrast it with the Bush administration’s record.
Read the full memo (PDF)
Scott Lilly on the Sago Mine Disaster