Bush's Big Government Straw Man

11 September 2003

By Stentor Danielson

President Bush has tried to take up the standard of small-government conservatism. This philosophy, central to the modern Republican party, holds that the government is best when it governs least. This means lower taxes, less spending, less regulation, and above all less bureaucracy.

They say you know you're doing things right when both sides are angry with you. By this standard, Bush's commitment to small government must be right on the money. Liberals decry his reckless tax cuts and efforts to move government jobs –- such as civilian positions in the Department of Defense –- out of the bureaucracy and onto the rolls of private-sector contractors. Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives fear Bush has abandoned them, citing his imposition of protectionist steel and lumber tariffs and his capitulation to the growing demand to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

On the environmental front, Bush's record seems at first glance to be strongly smallgovernment. He came into office and immediately began clearing away Clinton-era policies that had tightened pollution standards. He rejected the Kyoto protocol’s mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions, opting instead for toothless voluntary standards for industry. He has a history of strong-arming the EPA –- one of those hated bureaucracies –- to follow a course quite at odds with the scientific knowledge of its civil servants.

Yet, this obsession with big government as the source of all evil on the environmental front has led Bush and his administration too far. They’ve started seeing bureaucratic red tape where there is none. The result is that his environmental policies claim to be fixing problems that don’t exist.

Take for example the recently, and quietly, introduced rule changes regarding the sale of sites contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a common industrial pollutant and probable carcinogen. Under the old rules, the owner of a contaminated site had to clean it up before selling it to anyone. The aim was to create responsibility on behalf of polluters, so that they wouldn’t leave their messes behind for others to clean up. Under the new rules, a contaminated site can be sold, though it must still be cleaned up before any development can take place there.

The EPA claimed that the rule change was necessary to avoid situations where the red tape of cleanup requirements blocked the sale of a contaminated site from an owner who couldn’t afford to clean it up to a buyer who could. This sounds like a good move, which would help more sites get rehabilitated –- except that the supposed red tape didn’t exist. Under the old rules, the EPA would gladly and legally grant a waiver to the requirement when the buyer could show that it had a plan to clean up the site. Rather than being a rigid and frustrating rule, the old regulation is adaptable (perhaps even too adaptable) to special circumstances of particular cases.

In an August 14 memo about the policy, the EPA cited Mare Island in northern California as an example of the kind of site whose cleanup would be expedited by the new rule. The only problem is that Mare Island was successfully and speedily transferred from the Navy to the city of Vallejo in March –- under the old rules. No other specific examples of sites whose cleanups were actually stalled by the PCB rules have been forthcoming.

Another instructive case is the Healthy Forests Initiative, a plan unveiled with great fanfare that aims at preventing the kind of catastrophic wildfires that have ravaged the West. The centerpiece of the plan is a proposal to reduce the fuel load in the nation's forests by opening them to logging. The administration contends that litigation by environmentalists and others has slowed down the implementation of forest-thinning projects intended to reduce fire danger. So Healthy Forests aims to streamline the process, avoiding the tangles of red tape that leave our forests vulnerable.

The problem is, that red tape is nowhere to be found. A 2001 study by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that only one percent of hazardous fuel reduction projects that fiscal year had been appealed, and none had been litigated. Another GAO report, issued this past May, found that only five percent of fuel reduction projects had been delayed due to appeals. Once again, Bush is aiming to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

The question one must ask in cases like these is whether the people behind it are stupid or evil. Perhaps Bush is just so blinded by his anti-bureaucracy ideology that he assumes any regulation must be irrationally hindering action. On the other hand, he may simply be using small-government rhetoric as a pleasant-sounding cover for policy changes he's pursuing for ulterior motives –- for example, the Healthy Forests Initiative has been denounced as a stealthy way of opening forests to logging.

I won't venture a definitive answer to this question, but a U.S. Forest Service study commissioned by the administration is suggestive. Bush has a history of going back to agencies and asking for different data, if the information he gets doesn't support his policies –- most notably the pressure he put on the CIA to tell him that Iraq was a threat, and his repeated recalculating of economic models until one showed that his tax cuts would stimulate the economy. So when the GAO issued its 2001 report on the lack of bureaucratic hurdles to fire safety, the administration asked the Forest Service to take a stab at it. In a 2002 report, that agency found that forty-eight percent of forest projects in the preceding two years had been appealed, and twenty percent litigated. They got that number by including in their data set projects that had no bearing on fire safety –- such as logging of old growth forest or deep wilderness. Perhaps this is the red tape Bush is really concerned about.

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