RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The gulf of - oil spill, the deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine, and even the recall of millions of Toyotas all have something in common: They are instances not just of industry failures, but also of breakdowns in the government's regulatory process.
The Obama administration says it's taking a much more aggressive approach to rule-making, and some Democrats say the problems should be blamed on the Bush administration.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: The Consumer Product Safety Commission had been working with industry over several years to make baby cribs safer. Thousands had been recalled because their sides could detach and trap infants between the side and the mattress. When Inez Tenenbaum became CPSC chairman last June, the process dramatically quickened.
Ms. INEZ TENENBAUM (Chairman, Consumer Product Safety Commission): When I got here, the commission said, we will do cribs in the next few years. But I said, no. We're going to make it the number one priority, and drop-side cribs will be banned.
NAYLOR: Tenenbaum, a former state superintendent of education in South Carolina, says she believes in a fair-but-firm approach to regulating. Her job, she says, is to enforce the law.
Ms. TENENBAUM: Americans want to be safe, and they expect their federal government to protect them. And so that is what I'm here to do.
NAYLOR: Tenenbaum typifies the Obama administration regulatory approach. It's instituted new rules governing everything from how long airline passengers can be held on the tarmac, to the amount of combustible dust that can be produced at factories. It's a mixture of sticks and carrots.
David Michaels is head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.
Mr. DAVID MICHAELS (Director, Occupational Safety and Health Administration): We've increased the number of inspectors. We just hired 100 new inspectors. We're increasing enforcement. We've issued the largest fine in our history: an $87 million fine against BP following a series of events, but beginning with an explosion that killed 15 workers in a Texas City refinery.
NAYLOR: But along with raising fines against employers, Michaels says OSHA also offers employers a free consultation service.
Mr. MICHAELS: Our people will tell you how to abate the hazards, how to make sure you don't get fined by OSHA, and how to protect your workers.
NAYLOR: Democrats say this is a far cry from the approach of previous years, when the focus seemed solely aimed at accommodating industry.
During the Bush administration, oil industry officials were appointed to the Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with overseeing offshore drilling. Two inspector general reports have outlined the cozy relationship between regulators and the oil industry.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA, has been faulted in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, in West Virginia, for ineffective enforcement of mine safety laws.
Congressional hearings into Toyota's problems with unintended acceleration found NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ill-equipped to test modern electronic engine controls.
Democratic congressman Henry Waxman of California.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): The prevailing view of the Bush administration was that we could trust businesses to regulate themselves, we could trust the markets to do what's right. And their view of government was so hostile that they didn't think government could do anything right, and they did everything they could to prove that point by cutting back on the funds for these regulatory agencies and putting in cronies.
NAYLOR: The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which Waxman chairs, last week approved legislation stiffening safety standards for cars, including requiring they come with so-called black boxes to record data just prior to a collision.
It's the kind of approach to regulation that critics, such as James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation, say will lead to higher costs to consumers and increased unemployment.
Mr. JAMES GATTUSO (The Heritage Foundation): I think the Obama administration is just much readier to pull out the regulatory guns without negotiation beforehand, without trying market solutions as thoroughly as previous administrations had done.
NAYLOR: Gattuso says given the anti-government feelings among some Americans, the Obama administration's increased willingness to regulate may be a negative among voters. But administration officials disagree, arguing the American people want safe workplaces, safe toys and safe cars.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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