Cass Sunstein runs regulatory policy in the Obama White House. The administration’s goal, he wrote last month in The Wall Street Journal, is “creating a 21st-century regulatory system that protects public health and safety while also promoting economic growth and job creation.”
In a follow-up interview with The New York Times, he criticized conservatives who oppose virtually all government regulation and liberals who never met a rule they didn’t like. “Both are silly political claims that have no place in a serious discussion,” said Sunstein, a former law professor at the University of Chicago and Harvard.
He’s absolutely right. All regulations have both costs and benefits, and an all-or-nothing approach defies logic. The better course is to strike a reasonable balance between competing priorities. But in today’s Washington, anybody who tries to do that, to occupy a pragmatic middle ground, is immediately caught in an ideological crossfire.
Look what happened recently when the administration decided to postpone stricter ozone pollution standards. There’s no doubt that tighter rules would improve public health, but they come with a high cost to industries that must comply with those rules — as much as $90 billion a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
With the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent, and no improvement in sight, it certainly makes sense to weigh the economic burden more heavily and come down on the side of delay. Losing a job is as dangerous to your health as breathing smog.
But that sort of reasoning doesn’t sell very well these days. Liberals went nuts, with Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch calling Obama’s decision “an act of political desperation and political cowardice.” Justin Ruben of MoveOn.org added: “Stuff like this is devastating to the hope and passion that fuel the volunteers that made the president’s 2008 campaign so unique and successful.”
Conservatives, who find it impossible to say anything nice about the president, were not appeased. Majority Leader Eric Cantor called the administration’s efforts “underwhelming,” and Diane Katz, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, added: “It’s significant that the administration is acknowledging that regulatory costs matter. But are the savings they’re proposing significant? Not compared to the torrent of new regulations.”
Still, the White House is following the right course. Be careful. Judge each regulation on its merits. Don’t fall into ideological traps.
For example: In the wake of Wall Street recklessness that almost sank the economy three years ago, new regulations to curb those excesses and protect consumers are clearly justified. But it’s also critically important to reduce regulation where it’s not justified, to “change the culture,” as Sunstein puts it, “by having openness to public concerns, by getting a sense of how rules are operating on the ground.”
This is good policy. Job creation has to be the No. 1 priority of the administration, but it has very few weapons left. Interest rates are already at rock bottom, and more stimulus spending would meet staunch Republican resistance. Regulatory reform is not the Holy Grail that Republicans say it is, but if it can help save jobs, that goal should count heavily right now. Even environmentalists have to buy food and pay the mortgage.
But reasonableness is also good politics. Voter distrust of Washington has reached historic highs. In a new Gallup poll, only 17 percent expressed a positive feeling about the federal government, while 63 percent held a negative view, the strongest measure of unhappiness in the last 10 years.
One key reason: Voters want more cooperation and less confrontation, more focus on the national interest and less on partisan game playing. Bill McInturff, a respected Republican pollster, wrote recently that the disgraceful debacle over raising the debt ceiling “led to an immediate collapse in the confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.”
Liberals who want the president to get even tougher with the Republicans, to precipitate even more showdowns and more crises, are giving him bad advice. Yes, Obama’s favorable rating has sunk to a new low, an average of 43 percent in polls surveyed by the website Real Clear Politics. But he ranks far ahead of Republican leaders, whose scorched-earth tactics draw a positive score of only 22 percent in the latest Pew poll.
The middle ground can be a dangerous place. But when it comes to regulation, that’s the right place to be. Voters are ready to reward a leader who opposes the silly political claims of the hard-line purists on both extremes.
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at email@example.com.