Friday, May 14, 2010

Our Bureaucratic Crisis

This line from n+1’s recap of Gordon Brown’s career turns out to be unexpectedly resonant:
Instead we are headed for a world in which democratic leaders, even of Obama’s caliber, realize that image curation and popular gesture are a full-time job, while immense policy decisions fall increasingly to civil servants, central bankers, transnational apparatchiks, and, worst of all, leaders of the “business community.”

It’s unexpectedly resonant, because, well, here’s the EPA finally bringing down the hammer on carbon regulation. As Brad Plumer points out, the EPA’s method of regulating carbon would unquestionably be too intrusive and annoying for everyone involved:
… today it just took a major step on [carbon regulation] by issuing its long-awaited "tailoring rule." This is a slightly complicated subject, but here's the rough idea. Currently, under the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program, if you try to either build a new facility or upgrade an existing plant, and it's expected that the plant will emit a certain amount of pollutants—usually 100 to 250 tons per year is the threshold—then you have to apply for a permit from a state agency and show that you're using the "best available control technology" to restrict that pollution.

Now, here's where things get tricky: That 100-250 ton threshold is fine for stuff like lead or sulfur dioxide, since 100 tons per year is an enormous amount of lead, and it ensures that only the very largest polluters get regulated. But 100 tons per year isn't a whole lot of carbon-dioxide. If the EPA used this existing program to tackle greenhouse gases, about six million different facilities could potentially have to apply for permits, including some buildings that burn heating oil and conceivably a bunch of small businesses or churches or what have you. And then we get a big bureaucratic nightmare and a public backlash and things get hideous fast.

So instead the EPA is limiting its regulation to the big carbon emitters—those who emit over 75,000 tons of carbon and have to apply for the permits mentioned above on other pollutants. In essence, therefore, it creates annoying regulation for marginal public benefit (at least in comparison to the size and scale of the problem).

It’s worthwhile to note how we got to this point: it happened because the Senate is too dysfunctional to pass a bill the House passed months ago; it happened because the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to, under statutory law. So because the elected branch of government can’t handle the problem because of sheer institutional incompetence, one unelected powerful branch of government has to force another unelected powerful branch of government to do it. (by the by, the Supreme Court ordered the EPA to do it back in….2007.)

How much public attention was devoted to the full extent of this decision? I suspect that even many political junkies will be surprised by the timing and extent of the decision, for the simple reason that political junkies are only as good as the best of the media and therefore could not really anticipate the decision because the media did not, in any way, prepare the ground for the decision. The media prefers to cover the duly elected representatives of the nation. This is probably justified: after all, democracy depends on holding those we elect accountable.

Accountability has become very difficult these days, democratically. Observe the chain of events that led to this potentially very consequential decision: one unelected branch to another branch, which waits for the elected branch to dither, then it finally does its job. Who, exactly, are you supposed to blame here? The Court? The Congress, for failing to pass a law to do the job right? The Congress, for passing the Clean Air Act in the first place? The EPA, for implementing the decision? As you can see, accountability is not exactly clear here.

It’s increasingly unclear under our current system of confirming nominees. Sadly, whenever any sort of public attention is turned to the confirmation of the bureaucrats who make the government work, that attention immediately and invariably focuses on triviality. The most prominent example is Supreme Court Justices, but you could easily point out relatively minor examples like the controversies of Cass Sunstein and Ezekiel Emmanuel.

If no attention is bad, and the wrong sort of public attention on our increasingly-important bureaucracy is bad too, what are we supposed to do here? It’s unlikely that we can create a better breed of human being, one that can’t be distracted by the quotidian trivia of the media and loves a good long-form essay, and sherry and fireplaces in winter, but this is probably unachievable. We could also create a better media: one that’s focused on ever more subtle, nuanced reporting of what’s actually going on in government—truth to power and all that—but this seems unlikely too. It’s never been better to be an informed, patient consumer of the media, and I’m confident that tomorrow will be a better day. But it’s the median, the mainstream we have to be concerned about: if that’s mostly misleading tabloid coverage, or search-engine optimized dreck, then how are we supposed to make sure the public at large is an engaged one? We know that these two types of media are relatively profitable and relatively popular, and while I’m far from convinced that the media reorganization implies the death of middle- or highbrow media, I’m pretty sure that misleading lowbrow media will be prominent and popular in the future. So however good that might be, I’m not sure that’s the best focus of our efforts, rhetorical or otherwise. I’m afraid the only method, given the public and media attention on the Congress itself, is to increase the responsiveness and efficiency of the Congress. Which means increasing the responsiveness and efficiency of the Senate. Which means reforming the increasingly antiquated rules of the Senate. Yes, it’s a hobbyhorse but it’s a good one. Reform the Senate, reform the nation.

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