Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan , commenting on the economic difficulties then confronting the nation, proclaimed that ” government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Since then, the idea that government regulation imposes unreasonable burdens on business and interferes with economic growth has continued to find widespread support. Today, as we struggle to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, many politicians and business people argue that sound economic policy demands such strategies as deregulation and limitations on corporate responsibility — under the guise of “tort reform” – to improve the economy and encourage job growth.
The recent tragedies at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico should force a re-examination of the simplistic notion that government regulation and laws holding corporations accountable for their actions are unnecessary and harmful to the economy. On April 5, 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion in a mine which had been cited for more than 600 safety violations in the first three months of this year alone. Some of those citations had to do with critical safety issues, such as failure to provide adequate ventilation and failure to follow procedures for controlling the build up of highly combustible methane gas. In the face of repeated citations, the mine operators, instead of taking steps to correct the problems, employed a legal strategy of contesting every citation, thus delaying enforcement and continuing to do business as usual.
On April 20, an explosion destroyed the Deepwater Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven crew members were killed. Adding to the tragedy, a massive oil spill now threatens environmental disaster and economic devastation to thousands of Gulf States residents whose livelihoods depend on the commercial fishing and tourism industries vital to economy of the region. It has been widely reported that the oil industry vigorously lobbied against proposed regulations of off-shore drilling, and that routine inspections of the drilling platform had not been carried out.
Resistance to common sense regulation of industries which, however necessary they may be, unavoidably involve danger to the lives workers and the potential for environmental and economic devastation throughout an entire region is a common thread running through both of these tragedies. The story does not end there, however. It is now reported that the company which owned the sunken drilling platform – which was insured for more than $500 million — is arguing, based an 1851 law dealing with shipwrecks, that it cannot be held liable for damages caused by the disaster beyond the $27 million value of the drilling platform.
Setting out the principles upon which America was founded, the Declaration of Independence tells us that governments are instituted to secure the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Preamble to our Constitution recognizes the obligations of government to establish justice and to promote the general welfare. There is nothing un-American, or anti-business, in regulations which require reasonable safety practices to protect the lives and livelihoods of our fellow citizens. The events of the last month remind us of the terrible price to be paid when we ignore these basic values.