Protecting America from corporate abuse is about to get a lot harder

Republicans won't publicly kill the Clean Air Act. They'll just stealthily strangle it in red tape.

A corporate caricature.
(Image credit: Sergey Nivens / Alamy Stock Photo)

Even while Donald Trump's presidency is going from "car crash" to "50-car pileup," Congressional Republicans are busily doing all they can to make it easier for corporations to vacuum up all the wealth in the country.

The mechanism this time is by strangling the agencies charged with protecting the American people from corporate abuse — pollution, fraud, worker abuse, and so on — with red tape. This is the purpose of the Regulatory Accountability Act, which is being considered before the Senate.

As Yogin Kothari at the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, it would raise vast new barriers for regulatory agencies to conduct their statutory duties. Laws like the Clean Air Act direct federal agencies to come up with detailed regulations to fulfill the broad legal language, in line with the process set down in the Administrative Procedures Act. As I've written before, there has long been a neoliberal intellectual tradition to make this process as slow as possible, by placing burdensome hurdles before a rule can be issued and making them easier to challenge in court. (Incidentally, President Obama's first appointee to the regulatory oversight agency is one of the most prominent advocates of this view.)

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Republicans could of course simply repeal such laws and abolish the protective agencies, but that would be unpopular and give the game away. Therefore, better to leave some formal husk of the agencies intact. Just make it impossible for them to do their jobs, and core out their funding to boot. With any luck, all the expert staff will abandon ship.

The way to think about this is to abandon the idea of "deregulation" as such. In a narrow sense, if this bill passes, the power of the regulatory agencies — EPA, OSHA, SEC, and so on — will be sharply curtailed. But in a general sense, the power exercised by the government will merely shift form.

The bedrock of any state is a monopoly on the use of force, and the question of politics is on whose behalf that force will be deployed. Under this proposed law, the state legal institutions protecting the wealthy — property law, corporate law, securities law, and so forth — will of course remain intact. Hamstringing regulatory agencies merely narrows the scope of people for which violent state power will be deployed.

It is a way of allowing a corporation to dump poison into the air or to negligently allow their workers to be impaled to death by robots or to steal homes with forged foreclosure documents, behind the shield of violent state authority. If your child is sickened by mercury from a coal-fired power plant, and you attempt to shut it down, you will be violently removed from the premises by the police. If you attempt to sue them, you'll run into things like limited liability restricting your ability to extract damages (among many others).

Power removed from regulatory agencies merely flows upwards to wealthy people so they can protect themselves from the disgruntled, exploited masses. It's nothing new, either — back in Jim Crow days the government did nothing about violently disenfranchised black Americans, but they would sic the army on striking workers.

Indeed, rules created under a "deregulated" system can be every bit as byzantine and obnoxious as the worst state bureaucracy. Just fly on an airline these days — pressured by Wall Street to add baggage fees and reduce leg room to increase profits — and look at the fine print on the ticket. Fail to follow those rules, and you'll find the cops there to force you to obey corporate commands.

From Enron to the financial crisis to climate change, the last two decades have seen abuses and failures of private industry on a world-historical scale. Sandbagging financial or environmental regulators with nitpicky requirements is willfully dense. On the contrary, widening the scope of state action to cover the whole citizenry could not be more obviously just and necessary. A regulatory bureaucracy ought to take the legal commands of Congress, devise rules to carry them out quickly, efficiently, and openly, and put them into place. The presumption should be that regulation is necessary and unavoidable, not some sort of external burden on a pre-political market economy.

Those claiming otherwise merely want it to be cheaper to pollute the countryside and poison the citizenry.

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