Who Should Monitor the Smokestacks? ; Bush Team May Rely More on Self-Audits for Businesses in Areas like Environment

By Dante Chinni writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Who Should Monitor the Smokestacks? ; Bush Team May Rely More on Self-Audits for Businesses in Areas like Environment


Dante Chinni writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Gale Norton is just the beginning. Long after the debate over the Interior Secretary designee's nomination dies down, President Bush will be left to sort through the environmental issues that surround her. And one of the most controversial is likely to be business self-regulation.

The question is: Should industries be allowed to police what comes out of their smokestacks and waste pipes themselves?

Or does government need to hold a nightstick over companies' heads to keep the nation's skies and waterways clean?

The Bush administration seems poised to push the ethos of self- regulation farther than any recent government in Washington. While experimentation with "self-auditing," as it's often called, has been growing, Mr. Bush's record in Texas and the statements of several of his Cabinet nominees - including Ms. Norton at Interior and Christine Todd Whitman at the Environmental Protection Agency - suggest the practice will accelerate.

This could extend from environmental monitoring to workplace safety to perhaps even regulation of the Internet.

Therein lies something of a paradox. In some areas, like education, Bush talks of testing and accountability, while in others, like business regulation, he espouses flexibility.

"It seems like a contradiction," says William Niskanen, chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute. "They're calling for more accountability in the public sector and less in the private sector. But you have to look at the specifics."

Indeed, in the area of self-monitoring and self-regulation it's all about the details, say experts, and Bush will need to go slow and be careful in choosing which version he adopts.

Self-monitoring programs have been around for years within industries, where groups create higher standards and companies that promise to go along receive a sort of corporate seal of approval.

But these types of programs have mixed records, says Andrew King, a business professor at New York University, who has studied the initiatives.

Often the firms most interested in self-monitoring are the ones most interesting in polluting. "It's all over the map," says Mr. King. "We find some who accept the standards full out and some who accepted them cynically and think, 'Oh, this great cover for us.' "

Impact on company culture

Another problem, says Jennifer Nash, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is that self-monitoring programs tend to do little to change the practices of companies. …

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