Obama discovers foxes in the henhouse

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010; 10:33 AM

President Obama now says the federal government is part of the problem.

Trying to insulate himself from the political effects of the gulf oil spill, Obama said there has been "a cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill."

And, uh, who was in charge of that agency for the 15 months before the disaster?

It's a constructive move for the president to acknowledge that lax federal regulation contributed to the BP debacle. But like the press, he didn't react until after the offshore explosion that now threatens America's coastline.

Now he decides there's such an inherent conflict of interest in the Minerals Management Agency that it has to be split in two? Better late than never, but it's not like the problem wasn't glaringly obvious.

The New York Times reported the other day that the MMS allowed BP and other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without getting required permits from another agency. And how did the Obama administration deal with this report? The spokeswoman wouldn't comment! This, from the guy who promised the most transparent administration in history?

The Times also quoted current and former MMS scientists as saying they were regularly overruled by managers or pressured to change their findings on the safety and environmental impact of drilling. The no-comment spokeswoman's response was to blame the Bush administration and say the Obamaites have been trying to change that.

Suppressing dissident scientists was a recurring issue in the Bush years, but if Obama is talking about a cozy relationship, it seems the problem didn't end on Jan. 20, 2009.

It almost never fails that when a disaster occurs -- environmental, workplace, financial, you name it -- we learn that there were honest civil servants calling attention to the problem but ignored or marginalized by their bosses.

Is there a single Washington agency that was found to have done its job well in recent years? The SEC was asleep at the switch during the Bernie Madoff swindle and other financial scams (perhaps because some staffers were busy watching porn). The banking agencies let the big Wall Street firms flood the market with junk loans, shaky derivatives and other useless paper. NHTSA was horribly slow in cracking down on Toyota acceleration problems. The Mine Safety and Health Administration couldn't enforce its own citations before the explosion that killed more than two dozen at Massey Energy's West Virginia mine. And we all remember FEMA in New Orleans.

As Casey Stengel famously said in 1962, can't anybody here play this game?

Democrats in particular love to pass laws to regulate misconduct. Republicans tend to name industry-friendly types who came from the companies they are charged with regulating. But neither party has done a good job of managing the bureaucracy. And Obama, like the press corps that too often ignores this important turf, now recognizes he is late to the game.

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