WASHINGTON — I have just had an unpleasant encounter with the Department of Motor Vehicles (is there any other kind?). But I am arguing for government — better government.
I know, I know. I am shouting. But this is something I have been thinking about for a long time.
The problem in this country is not big government, as so many Americans believe. It is bad, inefficient, occasionally corrupt and often incompetent government.
I give you three exhibits.
• One is the sad and incomprehensible example of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seemingly ignoring the ignition problems of certain General Motors cars. At least 13 Americans lost their lives because of the ignition switch problem.
• The second exhibit is the horrific example of the landslide in the state of Washington. People bought into a catastrophe without being told of the danger. Commercial clearcutting operations were permitted above home sites that could have weakened the land mass.
• The third example is the new U.N. report that concludes that every person on Earth is going to be affected, mostly adversely, by climate change that is now an undeniable fact of life. More extreme weather. Food shortages. Floods. Droughts. Loss of life and loss of species.
Despite clear scientific evidence, naysayers of climate change, many in Congress and some in government, have ridiculed for years and are still pooh-poohing the dangers of manmade greenhouse gases. They have politicized the issue so much that millions have been ignorant of the facts. Actions that should have been taken years ago have been forestalled and are still being blocked. Folks, we’re living in one of those scary sci-fi movies and don’t even realize it.
News reporters are often hated as bearers of mostly bad news, which is true. I started reporting on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration when the iconoclastic Ralph Nader was just beginning his quest to make cars safer. I was one of many reporters writing reams of copy about the unsafe condition of too many cars. And government responded with seat belts, air bags, better bumpers, side vehicle protection, child safety seats, and countless other safety devices. Thousands of lives were saved.
And now we find out that for the past decade the government ignored a serious safety hazard, for which GM is profusely apologizing. People got tired of new government regulations. Regulators got tired of being scoffed at and taken to court. Various administrations bowed to industries that poured money into campaign coffers and in return got less vigilant government regulation. After the hot government regulatory period of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, people just got tired of being outraged. So government lapsed.
It will take months for the truth about the whys and wherefores of the Washington mudslide to emerge. But government is not looking good, and people are asking why.
I covered the aftermath of the catastrophic collapse of a pile of mine rock and shale into the village of Aberfan, Wales, which killed 116 children and 28 adults in 1966. A schoolhouse was directly in the path of the deadly slurry, which should have terrified anyone who saw it before the slide. Eventually, the Welsh National Coal Board was blamed for extreme negligence. No comfort to the families of those who died.
Think of all the people who have been permitted to build homes on dangerous waterfronts and areas prone to subsidence. Governments are supposed to protect people from such dangers. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail. But those who argue against government intrusion forget about the victims when government doesn’t do its job.
We should be very, very angry that Congress has let us down so badly. Congress is the body that oversees the regulators. Congress is responsible for investigating the dangers of pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Congress failed us, and we have failed ourselves by not demanding that Congress give us good government. This is not about officious DMV bureaucrats. People have died because of too many government failures, and more will die.
Ann McFeatters, a McClatchy-Tribune columnist, has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Email her at amcfeatters@ nationalpress.com.