About 100 federal agencies regulate different aspects of life in this medium-sized city. Which one does its job best? People here say it is the one that deals with just about everybody.
In more than five dozen interviews with all sorts of people and businesses here, a striking consensus emerged when people were asked to name the regulatory agency they respect most. There was less agreement about which agency was worst, most intrusive and so forth, but some patterns developed.
The regulatory program businesses here seem to hate most right now is ERISA, the pension-regulating law administered by the Labor Department and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. Every employer who has had to work under this program has an angry story about inflexible rules or pettifogging inspectors.
The "most-improved agency" award, in the minds of business people, would go to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "Five years ago, they went after the tiniest nonsense," said one factory manager, in a typical comment. "Now they're a lot more sensible and they're looking at your whole [factory] floor. We don't have any gripe with OSHA."
For the most part, business people here also have kind words for specialized regulators. Air Wisconsin gets along fine with the Federal Aviation Administration. Dairymen think highly of the Agriculture Department's milk inspectors. "They're fine men," says the manager of an ice cream plant here. "Most of them are right out of our industry."
And then there is one agency that draws raves from people in almost every line of endeavor. "Knowledgeable, professional, accommodating -- fine people," said an insurance man. "They're just totally scrupulous about people's privacy," said a banker. And so it went, with near-total agreement as to which federal agency is best.
The winner: the Internal Revenue Service.