… they’ll stop trying to attack President Obama by apologizing to the only figure less popular in this fiasco — BP — and start talking about the numerous problems with the oil spill response that have resulted from our feds-first, locals-take-a-number approach.
In his column today, David Brooks lists a dozen examples of local officials, with local knowledge of the lay of the land and what’s needed to protect the coast and its people, who have been greatly frustrated by dealing with Washington’s top-down bureaucracy.
If you talk to elected leaders from Louisiana to Florida, they fill your ears with tales of incompetence — of advice that was not heeded, of red tape stifling effective operations, of local knowledge that was cast aside and trampled.
Some of this rage is unavoidable when you have a crisis that no one can control. But it’s also clear that we have a federalism problem. All around the region there are local officials who think they know their towns best. They feel insulted by a distant and opaque bureaucracy lurking above.
The balance between federal oversight and local control is off-kilter. We have vested too much authority in national officials who are really smart, but who are really distant. We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground.
This is an important policy — not just political — point, because it gets to the heart of the government’s incompetence regarding the spill, not to mention the heart of Obama and the Democrats’ fundamental approach to problem-solving.
We pay the bulk of our taxes to the federal government, so that’s where the resources are. But this in no way guarantees that that’s where the knowledge, expertise and leadership are in a situation like this. The reports from the Gulf so far suggest the opposite is true. How much better might the response been so far if the feds had come to local and state officials in a support role rather than a leadership role?
Now, about the apology (for which the apologist, Texas Republican Joe Barton, has also apologized).
There is a legitimate point to make about whether the president has any legal authority to force BP to create a $20 billion (at least) escrow account to pay for claims. But this is a very narrow point, absent any obvious arm-twisting on Obama’s part. Yes, the announcement came after BP officials and Obama finally met face-to-face about the spill; and yes, Attorney General Eric Holder has made vague threats about a criminal probe of BP. Yes, the funds could wind up being spent irresponsibly or inappropriately. And yes, it’s even possible that Obama informed BP CEO Tony Hayward that his panel of experts had reviewed the evidence, conferred, and advised the president that Hayward’s keister is the “ass to kick” here.
But again, this is a narrow point, barring the emergence of some recording in which the president tells BP “do this, or I’ll destroy you.” And even then, you couldn’t possibly make this point in a worse way than framed as an apology to BP.
It’s also, I would guess, beside the point as far as most Americans are concerned. This is not where the frustration with government overreach lies for many Americans. For many more, it’s about the idea that we send too many tax dollars away to a distant government whose layers and layers of bureaucrats render it incapable of quick, nimble, effective action. That obvious truth is why complaints about government waste and government inefficiency and unfunded federal mandates and all the rest get traction with the public.
This is both a philosophical and a practical problem, one that ought to demonstrate that federalism and decentralization are real concerns for more than a few “South shall rise again” holdouts. The imbalance between the federal and state/local governments is a real problem with real consequences.
Making that case would get to the problem with the agenda of Obama and national Democrats far more pointedly than any complaints that the White House intimidated an oil company that everyone knows screwed up big-time.