The Scandal of Lax Government

For decades now, it’s been fashionable to demonize government. After all, that’s what billions of dollars invested in right-wing think tanks and media outlets will buy you. There also are genuine abuses by bureaucrats. But lax government oversight can be a scandal, too, as Bill Moyers and Michael Winship note.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

After a week that reminds us to be ever vigilant about the dangers of government overreaching its authority, whether by the long arm of the IRS or the Justice Department, we should pause to think about another threat — from too much private power obnoxiously intruding into public life.

All too often, instead of acting as a brake on runaway corporate power and greed, government becomes their enabler, undermining the very rules and regulations intended to keep us safe.

U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol)

Think of inadequate inspections of food and the food-related infections which kill 3,000 Americans each year and make 48 million sick. A new study from Johns Hopkins shows elevated levels of arsenic — known to increase a person’s risk of cancer — in chicken meat.

According to the university’s Center for a Livable Future, “Arsenic-based drugs have been used for decades to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat. The drugs are also approved to treat and prevent parasites in poultry Currently in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed.”

And here’s a story in The Washington Post about toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals used in poultry plants to clean more chickens more quickly to meet increased demand and make more money.

According to Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, “They are mixing chemicals together in these plants, and it’s making people sick. Does it work better at killing off pathogens? Yes, but it also can send someone into respiratory arrest.”

So far, the government has done next to nothing. No research into the possible side effects, no comprehensive recordkeeping on illnesses. “Instead,” the Post reports, “they review data provided by chemical manufacturers.”

What’s more, the Department of Agriculture is about to allow the production lines to move even faster, by as much as 25 percent, which means more chemicals, more exposure, more sickness.

Think of that and think of the 85,000 industrial chemicals available today only a handful have been tested for safety. Ian Urbina writes in The New York Times, “Hazardous chemicals have become so ubiquitous that scientists now talk about babies being born pre-polluted, sometimes with hundred s of synthetic chemicals showing up in their blood.”

Think, too, of that horrific explosion of ammonium nitrate in the Texas fertilizer plant. Fifteen people were killed and their little town devastated. The magazine Mother Jones noted, “Inspections are virtually non-existent; regulatory agencies don’t talk to each other; and there’s no such thing as a buffer zone when it comes to constructing plants and storage facilities in populated areas.”

For years, the Fertilizer Institute, described as “the nation’s leading lobbying organization of the chemical and agricultural industries,” resisted regulation and legislators went along. People can lose their lives when federal or state government winks at bad corporate practices 4,500 workplace deaths annually at a cost to America of nearly half a trillion dollars.

As columnist and author David Sirota observes, “If all this data was about a terrorist threat, the reaction would be swift — negligent federal agencies would be roundly criticized and the specific state’s lax attitude toward security would be lambasted. Yet, after the fertilizer plant explosion, there has been no proactive reaction at all, other than Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry boasting about his state’s ‘comfort with the amount of oversight’ that already exists.”

Finally, consider this story from ProPublica’s investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten about a uranium company that wanted a mining project in Texas that threatened to pollute drinking water. The EPA resisted — until the company hired as its lobbyist the Democratic fundraiser and fixer Heather Podesta, a favorite of the White House. Her firm was paid $400,000, she pulled the strings, and presto, the EPA changed its mind and said yes, go ahead and do your dirty work.

In fact, Pro Publica found that “the agency has used a little-known provision in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to issue more than 1,500 exemptions allowing energy and mining companies to pollute aquifers, including many in the driest parts of the country.”

Of course, in a free society we’ll always be debating the role of government and its agencies. What are the limits, when is government oversight necessary and when is it best deterred? But it’s not only government that can go too far.

As long as there are insufficient checks and balances on big business and its powerful lobbies, we are at their mercy. Their ability to buy off public officials is an assault on democracy and a threat to our lives and health. When an entire political system persists in producing such gross injustice, it is making inevitable wholesale defiance.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the think tank Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at

4 comments for “The Scandal of Lax Government

  1. Paul G.
    May 23, 2013 at 09:36

    Deja vu. vaguely in my memory this sounds so familiar; I recall similar behavior around the time of the Nixon regime. Obamascam you strike again.Further elaboration is in order; Heather Podesta deserves a little more space, here is a quote from Politico.

    “Powerhouse lobbyist Heather Podesta, who’s married to John Podesta’s brother Tony, has been e-mailing around invites for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s big March fundraiser at her house.

    The event is to be hosted by Nancy Pelosi ($30K per table, it looks like) and features Madame Speaker’s favorite vice: dark chocolate (not in the invite, but in the e-mail’s subject line).

    The DCCC could use the boost. The committee, which has been instrumental in securing Pelosi’s 78-Democrat majority, was $16.4 million in the red at year’s end, according to federal filings.

    “Please join us on Monday, March 9, for an intimate, seated dinner with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen and other members of Congress,” writes Podesta, whose lobbying firm represents a range of clients that would make Barack Obama blush, including Swiss Re, U.S. Steel, Home Depot, HSBC, the Newspaper Association of America and Boeing.”

    Yes that girl has clout, chocolate for the powerful, and some uranium tailings for some lucky Texans, and the beat goes on.

    An excellent biography could be made for the Big O. by just describing and detailing those who have provided the bucks to make him and his associates, Penny Pritzker et. al., Podesta. You want to know someone; look at the friends they keep.

  2. rosemerry
    May 22, 2013 at 03:34

    THANK YOU !! As a non-Mercan, I really get fed up with the ludicrous concentration on the latest enemy-” islamic terrorism”-when the risks of such attacks is tiny, and real risks increase daily with the loosening of any regulations under the Obama administration. EPA decisions, Agriculture, Labor, commerce, “TransPacific partnership” etc constantly put the lives of USans and others at risk; suicides, military madness, imprisonment, “drug wars” ruin the lives of so many innocent people. Three people are killed after the Boston marathon and all hell breaks loose because it is -conveniently- two young Muslims who can be linked to it as they (alone of all the spectators?!) wore backpacks. Forget the West, Texas explosion and all the murders that same week, caused by non-terrorists.

    May 21, 2013 at 18:08


  4. Tony
    May 21, 2013 at 17:35

    “All too often, instead of acting as a brake on runaway corporate power and greed, government becomes their enabler,,,,,,”

    Wow, that is the definition of fascism.

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