Politics & Policy

Homeland Bureaucracy?

Improvements to chemical-plant security should not add extra layers of red tape.

Writer P.J. O’Rourke once quipped: “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” It seems that in these days of terrorist fears, federal power seems to be more difficult to control than teenage boys.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Susan M. Collins (R., Maine)on chemical-plant security makes an attempt to control federal expansion in one area, yet grows government bureaucracy elsewhere. On the positive side, Collins deserves credit for taking an approach that diverges from prior proposals offered by John Corzine(D., N.J.) when he was in office. Starting in 2001, he proposed policies to mandate what he called “inherently safer technology,” which would have meant giving regulators authority to essentially ban or reduce politically unpopular chemicals.

The Collins approach would manage chemicals rather than eliminate politically unpopular ones. This is much wiser since many so-called “dangerous” products are actually quite valuable to society. Indeed, the “toxic” properties of pesticides and disinfectants are precisely what make these products effective in the war against deadly pathogens.

Hopefully, Collins will succeed in keeping the new bill focused on security, but she faces challenges. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) recently began circulating a draft bill that he is co-sponsoring with other Senate Democrats–including John Kerry(Mass.) and Joe Biden (Del.) –that would include language to mandate the switch to “inherently safer technology.”

The downside of the Collins bill is that it would needlessly increase bureaucratic federal mandates, because it overlaps considerably with the EPA’s risk-management program. The bill would mandate that firms put together plans to address potential chemical releases, even though the EPA already requires such plans.

Instead of instituting this redundant requirement, one solution would be to shift the EPA’s existing regulatory functions to the Department of Homeland Security and add a security aspect. This approach would eliminate the need for firms to file separate reports and comply with different agencies.

In addition, the Collins bill would create a new emergency-planning structure–one that would basically duplicate the system of offices and emergency-planning committees created under the Federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. It is unclear as to why the federal government wants to create so much additional bureaucracy rather than simply setting policies that sharpen the focus on this issue within existing institutions. If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we don’t need new levels of bureaucracy to navigate during national crises.

Finally, enforcement provisions in the Collins bill should also raise red flags for anybody who cares about free enterprise. These provisions are so broad that they give the Department of Homeland Security unqualified power to shut down chemical plants, levy fines of up to $1 million a year, and place owners or operators in jail for up to one year if a plant doesn’t gain the agency’s approval of its chemical-plant-security plan. In essence, this means that the Department can shut down a facility for failing to meet paperwork mandates.

Homeland Security should have to meet the same standards applied under other emergency laws. Under the National Contingency Plan, which guides EPA policies under Superfund and related laws, the federal government can only shut down a facility if it determines a release or potential release presents an “imminent and substantial danger to public health and welfare or the environment.” Homeland Security should have to meet this standard as well–and if it shuts down a plant without justification it should have to compensate the owner for lost productivity.

Just as the debate has finally moved away from some particularly egregious government intrusions into the chemical marketplace, the Collins bill would expand government elsewhere. Lawmakers would be wise to curb these expansions, lest both business and emergency responders find themselves in a needless maze of bureaucracy–possibly during an emergency situation.

–Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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