Paralysis by government

How many groups does it take to improve a bridge? No joke: one contractor, several environmental nonprofits; a number of judges, and multitudes of federal, state and local agencies—over a period of many years just to get legal approval to start construction.

According to Philip K. Howard writing in the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 23-24, 2013), Americans are “spinning our wheels in perpetual review.” Our construction projects involve “interminable regulatory review”; “endless red tape,” and are “bogged down in environmental litigation.”

Government agencies create documents sometimes with thousands of pages and the review process continues in a “multiyear ooze of irrelevant facts,” writes Mr. Howard. He should know. Howard is a lawyer and chairman of a reform group called Common Good.

Remember when President Obama in a TV interview chuckled and said, “Turns out there were no shovel-ready jobs” after he had made a big public pitch about spending $830 billion to repair “roads and bridges”—presumably to create jobs and “stimulate” the economy? (Howard reminds us that instead of infrastructure work the funds were diverted to bail out state governments for their irresponsible spending on projects and employment.)

Howard says that the problem with lack of infrastructure repairs and improvements isn’t a shortage of money. In my opinion it’s a surplus of radical environmental agitators, compliant bureaucrats and opportunistic lawyers.

The author focuses on public projects, but the problem of paralysis by government also applies to private development—that not only creates productive jobs, but wealth and improved standards of living. An example right here in River City (Wilmington, N. C.) is the long, expensive and disruptive environmental litigation and review process endured by the Carolinas Cement Company over the past four years.

It took three years for the company to get an air quality permit from a North Carolina State agency. Meanwhile it had to fight lawsuits by a regional cabal of nonprofit environmental groups instigated by the N. C. Coastal Federation, supported by the Southern Environmental Law Center. These obstructionists deliberately stalled construction of a modern cement plant on the site of a former mined area.

In addition the company must conduct an expensive, two-year environmental review required by federal law administered by the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers. Finally, local county officials are expected to require a “special use” permit for the company to operate subject to the whims of local politics.

To help overcome this paralysis of progress, Mr. Howard suggests two reforms. He believes we need an independent agency “to decide how much environmental review is sufficient.” He also thinks that change must be made to “Balkanized” approvals for other regulations and licenses now infesting myriad public bureaucracies at all government levels. Coordination is lacking and duplication must be eliminated.

I’m skeptical of establishing another agency of any kind. We have too many of them now and regardless of their “independence” when associated with government they usually get sucked into the vortex of politically self-serving groups and bureaucracies. But Mr. Howard has some useful ideas.

It’s time for our elected officials to have the guts to just say No! They don’t have to cower before intimidating environmentalist groups. They don’t have to recognize judge’s decisions that clearly hamper progress. And they can muster the courage to reject environmental propaganda designed to stall projects that serve the best interest of all citizens. Most reasonable people will respect them for their gumption.

Our elected officials have the power to condemn private property for public use. Surely, they can also declare important public projects off-limits to coercive tactics of self-serving environmentalist nonprofits, and limit unreasonable regulation by public agencies.

At the same time our political heroes could better serve the citizens by not being afraid to support private development of our natural resources that improve the lives of all of us—otherwise progress in American States is on a path to paralysis.

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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