Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#105, September 19, 2000


by Marylaine Block

The current hearings on the Firestone fiasco, where officials from Firestone, Ford and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration were bawled out equally, are an example of the classic double bind Congress's Monday morning quarterbacks routinely put government officials in -- yelled at if they regulate too much or too quickly, and yelled at when they don't act soon enough.

NHTSA, an agency systematically starved of both funds and enforcement power for the past twenty years, is authorized by Congress to not only recall unsafe vehicles, but to improve designs for injury prevention, driver impairment, crash avoidance, school bus safety, child passenger protection, highways, and traffic law enforcement as well. With just $3,000,000 for investigating vehicle defects, NHTSA has to rely heavily on self-reporting by the industry it supervises, and on computer analysis of incidents, to decide which problems are significant enough to require investigation.

Playing to TV cameras, congressmen professed outrage that NHTSA hadn't acted sooner, despite testimony that NHTSA couldn't have known what Firestone was not required to tell them about tire-failure accidents overseas. Congressmen didn't buy the explanation that the number of known Firestone-related accidents in 1998, compared to the number of Firestone tires on the road, was too small to indicate a serious problem -- though had NHTSA recalled the tires two years ago on the basis of those statistics, you can bet they would have complained that NHTSA was overreacting.

It's not just NHTSA, either. Congress mandated that the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendations be reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration because an agency single-mindedly devoted to safety has little interest in the costs of safety improvements to industry or public convenience. The FAA, however, is required by law to consider the cost per probable death prevented before it regulates. The FAA, in fact, is a model of what many politicians think an oversight agency should be - one that doesn't inflict excessive costs on business without substantial reason. But that didn't save it from recent Congressional complaints about FAA foot-dragging on safety.

It also got bawled out for not doing the impossible. Called on to explain this summer's many flight delays, FAA officials pointed out that they had no control over weather or airline scheduling, and that if airports have enough runways and air traffic controllers to handle ten takeoffs and landings in one 15 minute period, and the airlines have scheduled thirty, God himself couldn't prevent delays. Congress remained unimpressed.

The Forest Service is damned for being unprepared for this year's record-setting fire season, by the same Congress that underfunds it and doesn't seem to understand that in this world, you get what you pay for. It is damned for fighting too many fires in the past, allowing underbrush to build up to become a dangerous threat, though a few years back when the fire service tried to let the Yellowstone fire progress naturally, they faced public criticism for NOT fighting the fire soon enough. The service, aided by the army reserve and firefighters from abroad, has been doing a heroic, backbreaking job of fighting one fire after another this season, and I 'm still waiting to hear someone say, "Thanks, guys."

Newspapers and networks also put government in this "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position by virtually never reporting the routine, essential activities of government - writing social security checks, gathering data, forecasting hurricanes, inspecting bridges, building roads, funding medical research, assisting in disaster recovery, etc. Their government stories are about either outrageous overspending or intrusive meddling when government DOES act, or people who suffer when government does NOT intervene.

Criticism of government performance is fine, as long as we also notice when government does its job well. If we want to shrink the federal government by assigning it fewer tasks and giving it enough money and authority to do those tasks well, that's fine with me. But shrinking it by cutting its power and funding while expanding its responsibility is not only fundamentally dishonest, it's a recipe for disaster.

I don't see why would anybody WANT to perform public service now, knowing that whatever they did would be too much or not enough, but invariably WRONG. Suppose they gave a government and nobody came?

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