Another Katrina-Like Government Failure Signals Need for Reform
I am generally satisfied with my ability to comprehend and analyze complex issues, but there are certain subject matters that leave me baffled. Generally, I won’t delve too deeply into concepts that leave me mentally incapacitated: theology, astrophysics… algebra. But when it comes to political policy issues, I’m rarely dumbfounded.
That is, I was rarely dumbfounded. Then the BP oil spill happened, and friends began asking me what the government should do to fix the problem and save face. I sounded like Porky Pig after he’d thrown back a few. There was no way to answer the question without uncovering another dilemma. There’s a myriad of complex subplots to this issue, all with far-reaching consequences. Rather than try to tackle them all at once, I think it best to adopt the approach I’ve taken when contemplating astrophysics… let’s start with the big bang.
Disaster at Sea
Late in the evening of April 20, a fire engulfed an offshore drilling unit 52 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. The fire was the result of an explosion that killed eleven people and injured fifteen. Preliminary reports suggest that a panoply of problems could be to blame, including malfunctioning shutoff switches, emergency disconnection systems, and pressure testing units, as well as broken safety valves.
Others have suggested that the cause of the explosion occurred long before the fire broke out on the BP rig. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been accused of being a bit too smitten with the industry it is tasked with regulating. According to a new report from Interior Department Inspector General Mary Kendall, her greatest concern was “the environment in which these inspectors operate — particularly the ease with which they move between industry and government.
Prior to the Deepwater Horizon incident, I’d probably have assumed that MMS was some neurological disease if it were ever brought up during a conversation. That said, before Katrina, I’d have assumed that FEMA was just another leg bone. In eerily similar circumstances, both agencies flew well under the radar in the public’s conscience until devastating incidents thrust them front and center.
Is it Groundhog Day?
In 2005, after having already been relieved of his job of overseeing the federal efforts in the gulf coast, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Michael Brown forcibly resigned from his position. This was largely attributable to his inexperience and ineptitude while holding the post.
Did Katrina send a message to smaller government agencies that competency is a mandate for all directors? Apparently not. A few days ago, MMS Director Elizabeth Birnbaum got the ax after reports came out that she had taken too low a profile during the oil spill crisis.
No Need for the Blame Game – We Have a Volunteer
So who is really at fault for this crisis? Should BP have done more to safeguard the rig against an explosion? Should the oil companies have been better suited to handle an oceanic oil leak before they began drilling? Was the MMS responsible for failing to properly regulate the oil companies?
Apparently President Barrack Obama thinks that it’s his fault. As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post put it, “he practiced every form of self-flagellation short of bringing out a cat-o’-nine-tails.”
“The culture had not fully changed in MMS and absolutely I take responsibility for that,” he said. “There wasn’t sufficient urgency.”
He continued to say that “we should have busted through those constraints… pre-deploying boom would have been the right thing to do… I do think our efforts fell short. They should have pushed them sooner… I think that it took too long… Where I was wrong was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together.”
Does the president deserve to take some heat for this? Absolutely, but he is not as culpable as he thinks he is. The reality is that presidential administrations have a long legacy of making ill-advised appointments. Unfortunately, it takes a disaster of epic proportions for any of us to care enough about it to demand changes.
Guess who’s really at fault (hint: it rhymes with Yiddish linoleum)
Ultimately, the entity responsible for this disaster is BP. It was their rig that blew up, and it was their responsibility to have a contingency plan in case a leak occurred. The president was wrong to place so much faith in his “belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.”
As Bob Herbert of the New York Times put it, “with all due respect to the president, who is a very smart man, how is it possible for anyone with any reasonable awareness of the nonstop carnage that has accompanied the entire history of giant corporations to believe that the oil companies, which are among the most rapacious players on the planet, somehow ‘had their act together’ with regard to worst-case scenarios.”
Ed Rogers, former White House staffer and chairman of BGR Group said it best. “So far there are no political winners from the gulf oil spill debacle. And there probably won’t be any winners, just various degrees of losers.” Obama cannot hope to score any political points during the disaster relief effort—at best, he can mitigate the damage it does to his administration’s reputation. But simply saying “Hey, I screwed up,” doesn’t say much other than “hey, check out how incompetent I was.”
Obama needs to use this incident as a launching pad for administration reform. Governmentally speaking, the biggest issue here is not that BP’s rig exploded, but that the government should have had proper checks in place to ensure that it didn’t. He needs to spearhead the implementation of reforms from stem to stern while promising the American people that every government department is to be examined and every director’s qualifications and dedication to the public interest is ensured.
We don’t need a passive apologist right now. I’m tired of hoping for change. Right now, it’s desperately needed.