The prevailing consensus in Washington endorsing the deregulating of American business from government supervision had been self-assured: Government was not the solution; government was the problem. The smart money all agreed that The Private Sector knew best. Federal rules on business were, almost by definition, obstacles to economic growth and, probably, socialistic schemes dreamed up by some impractical theoretician who obviously "had never met a payroll."
That anti-regulation consensus is now officially dead. No 2010 candidate not under indictment or detox will be running on a platform of, "Let's stop government's meddling in the affairs of Wall Street and America's big banks," or, "When it comes to the safety of the food we eat, the free market knows better than any federal inspector or bureaucrat."
It's not that Americans are suddenly pro red tape. They are not. But they do not want their children exposed to disease or disability from the lead paint on the toys they play with any more than they want contaminated toothpaste or pet food coming into their homes from China.
Nor will sensible Americans accept E-coli in the spinach they are sold or, even worse, salmonella in their peanut butter - because the peanut processing plant went uninspected by the federal government for seven years. Taken together, these failures and threats to the very survival of families destroy the conservative case for deregulation.
Last February's tragic crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 to Buffalo, with the loss of 50 lives, revealed that the commuter airlines pilots were not just paid less than a receptionist or a bellhop, but that they received much less training than do the pilots at the major airlines. And they were flying with less rest.
Serious questions were raised about those major airlines - greedily pocketing bucks while subcontracting out their major company name and these less-profitable commuter routes - absolving themselves of responsibility for the safety of the passengers on the ticket those passengers have bought not from the commuter, but from the major carrier. Federal oversight was weak and unresponsive. That is unacceptable.
One of the staunchest champions of deregulation had been Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman, and former California Republican congressman, Chris Cox. As Americans painfully discovered that Washington's deregulation of Wall Street and the banks, along with the untrammeled avarice of many in the financial field, had brought the nation to its economic knees, Cox confessed in congressional testimony on Sept. 25, 2008, he had learned that "voluntary regulation does not work." Cox added, "The lessons of the credit crisis all point to the need for strong and effective regulation without major holes or gaps."
Democratic hands are not all clean in the failure of government to protect citizens from the terminal, even criminal, selfishness of too many in the private sector. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had kept separate commercial banks from investment banks, won strong Democratic backing. A Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed into law the legislation to specifically exclude exotic financial instruments like derivatives and credit default swaps from federal regulation under the Commodity Exchange Act.
It was a great Republican president who solemnly stated, "In the United States, we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals." Those were the uncompromising words of Teddy Roosevelt, who courageously battled, and often bested, those powerful private interests that profited from the ravaging of the environment, the exploitation of workers and the apathy of the federal government.
In 2009, Americans want the air we breathe and the water we drink to be clean, the food we eat and the products we buy to be safe, and the marketplace we enter to be lawful. Deregulation has been tried and found wanting.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.