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Inspectors under fire

Being a federal inspector of any kind has to be the toughest job in government today.

Inspectors often work alone, whether at job sites, packing plants, feedlots, pharmaceutical labs, hospital water reservoirs or counting rooms. And inspectors need more than clear rules and enforcement checklists, though clarity is often in short supply. They need a clear sense of purpose that guides them through the thicket of anger they often generate--they are hardly the most popular visitors to enter a plant or to helicopter onto an oil rig.

They need to constantly remind themselves why they took their jobs in the first place, and how they fit into the faithful execution of the laws. They also need the integrity to make the tough, often unpopular calls, blow the whistle all the way to the top of their agencies and out to the media, avoid temptations and bribes of all kinds, and keep the pressure on. They obviously need a big dose of honesty and faith in the possible.

However, even the most motivated, purposed inspector cannot do his or her job without support from the president, political appointees, Congress and the courts. What are oil inspectors to make of the current Senate dithering on the oil bill, for example? The cozy relationships that generated lax enforcement have never been more visible as the industry pours money into stopping the bill.

What are oil inspectors to make of the continued squeeze on the number of inspectors and the Republican pressure to cut their workforces even further? How are the government's inspectors expected to do their jobs when there are so many places to monitor, so much duplication and overlap among the inspection agenda, and so little communication? The Agriculture Department's chicken-plant inspectors knew there were problems at the plants that produced the contaminated eggs, for example, but never alerted the Food and Drug Administration.

What are inspectors of all kinds to make of their own bureaucracies? Political scientists such as Stanford University's Terry M. Moe have long argued that agencies are often designed to fail. Advocates do everything possible to protect the regulatory apparatus, often by imposing needless rules on everything from pre-authorization of inspections to layer-upon-layer of political oversight. Predictably, opponents throw every bureaucratic hassle into the mix to undermine clarity and deter action.

As a result, many regulations are designed to fail, and in no small reason because presidents put hostile political appointees into the top jobs. Thomas Frank didn't call the Bush administration the "wrecking crew" for nothing. The administration did everything it could to undermine the regulatory process, prompting dozens of lawsuits demanding faithful readings of the laws. The administration lost most of the cases, but industry got extra time to put Americans at risk.

Americans may want safe food in their refrigerators, pure water from their taps, and careful inspections of the cars they drive, airplanes they fly, and bridges they cross. But many of the government's inspection agencies are understaffed and struggling to cover even a fraction of their turf. The result is doubt, not distrust.

The Obama administration is doing the best it can to rebuild the regulatory infrastructure by hiring thousands of frontline inspectors. But the hiring is fueling anti-government rhetoric and the Republican pledge to freeze the hiring process, trim the workforce, and cut pay. The Interior Department wants more oil inspectors and has set its sights on recruiting young petroleum engineers, but has met plenty of resistance. The oil spill is over, technology has triumphed, why bother? The oil industry can outbid the department at every turn, and has every incentive to take the very best recruits off the federal market.

Pity the Obama administration as it tries to hire a few more Internal Revenue Service agents to capture the $300 billion in delinquent taxes now on the books. The $300 billion would make a big dent in paying down the deficit, but imagine the campaign advertisements that would follow and the shadowy figures they would feature in attacking the hiring. Americans may want less spending, but not if saving money means more federal employees.

Inspectors must not be deterred. They must have the guts to withstand the hostile stares and angry managers. They must also have the unconditional support of their bosses, including the president and Congress. That's the only way to start paring down the doubt. If senators don't like oil regulation, let them be counted. They should have the guts to say so instead of using the same old tactics to stall the bill to death.

By Paul Light

 |  September 29, 2010; 9:57 AM ET |  Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Well wrote article and 100% on target. Thanks from an Inspector

Posted by: meat925 | October 1, 2010 5:19 PM

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