Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Regulatory Reform: The Case for Common Sense; an Interview with Philip K. Howard

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Regulatory Reform: The Case for Common Sense; an Interview with Philip K. Howard

Article excerpt

It's not every day that the author of a book on rules and regulations gets invited onto "Oprah," but Philip K. Howard is just such an author. His book, The Death of Common Sense has spent six months on The New York Times' best seller list and has 295,000 copies in print. Howard argues that regulation has become disconnected from the humans who must enforce and live with it. The problem has its roots in the Enlightenment, he argues, and in the noble but misguided principle that "reason" can be achieved through uniform rules that anticipate every conceivable circumstance. Howard argues convincingly that these rules--which are at the heart of modern agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)--have had the perverse effect of eliminating common sense from the equation.

Take the Glen-Gery brick factory in Pennsylvania, Howard says. Instead of examining the real hazards of this workplace, OSHA applies a set of uniform rules, requires the factory to fill out hundreds of forms, and insists on enforcing the letter of the law. The factory has been cited for having railings 40 inches high, rather than the required 42 inches. With all that wasted energy, OSHA can't focus on what really might put workers in danger. "It is as if OSHA's goal, the safety of workers, is obscured from view by all the rules intended to advance it," Howard writes. "What we need is a system focused on goals and results, not rules and process." He applies this simple but powerful point to everything from governent contracting to the courts to schools and hospitals.

Regulatory reform is a hot topic in Washington and state capitals this summer, and Howard helped light the fire. He has been consulted at length by President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, as well as numerous agency heads and governors. But with Howard's book being waved all over Capitol Hill and beyond, it's tough to discern just what the author and "government by principle" guru stands for when it comes to policy. Monthly Editor Joshua Wolf Shenk looked for answers in the following interview.

Monthly: Some people have the impression from your book that you're against regulation. But that's not true, is it?

Howard: Of course not. I want clean water and good meat and safe airplanes, and so does most everyone I know. And building codes and rules to protect disabled children. I also don't mind that it costs big business money to behave responsibly. We need to have certain standards, and government has a role there.

My point is that government rarely works sensibly, and a large part of the reason is the reams of detailed rules that try to account for every conceivable situation and end up choking the whole process. Just because environmental laws work terribly doesn't mean the government shouldn't protect the environment. The goal of the Superfund legislation is an important one. No one wants their kids playing near a toxic dump. But the law was written in such a way that all dumps are to be treated exactly alike. It doesn't allow the flexibility that's required to deal with a complicated situation.

I'm not saying you can eliminate all rules; they're important in some cases. But if you apply the rule to a specific situation and it's obviously stupid--like forcing a company to install expensive smokestack scrubbers when 90 percent of its pollution is coming from liquid chemicals--then the regulator needs to be able to adjust to that reality.

Here's the problem, though. Often, if not always, these detailed rules are written because we fear dumb or corrupt civil servants. Some of them need to have everything spelled out. What about the guy who shows poor judgment time after time?

First let me explain what I mean by "common sense." It's not a single truth, some absolute wisdom, but the responsibility to make sense of any given situation. Often the "common sense solution" is the result of a dialogue or an argument between, say, the safety inspector and the foreman, or between the citizen seeking a permit and the bureaucrat behind the desk. …

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