A bizarre fear grips regulated industries in Washington, DC, no matter the industry or the political bent of the sitting Administration. It’s called “fear of reprisal,” and it means industries will not publicly – and often privately – challenge the actions or decisions of a government department or agency, no matter how silly or stupid those actions are thought to be, for fear the agency or Administration will do them regulatory harm, as in delay review of an application, pull off a “surprise” inspection of a plant, or other such punishment.
I’ve never asked a regulator about this phenomenon; however, I hear it voiced often at industry meetings when hard edged strategies are suggested. Being a former reporter, I’ve asked various industry reps for examples of companies victimized by vengeful regulators for disagreeing publicly with a policy or decision. I never heard a first-hand account.
I suspect the departments and agencies are well aware of – and may in fact count upon – the industry shying away from any type of public showdown or criticism. I don’t believe most regulators sit around thinking of ways to harass or “punish” industry or foster the notion all regulatory decisions carry implied threats if opposed. However, I’ve met my share of male and female regulatory Napoleons.
Just the reverse seems to be true if an activist group of any stripe with a hot media machine and blind eye to all but your own philosophy/politics gets its back up. I’ve seen regulatory agencies over the years – and in some cases the White House – do back flips to keep one or more chest-thumping activist groups (we call them “NGOs” – nongovernment organizations) from cranking up the media machine and raining all kinds of ugly on the politicians or bureaucrats.
Again let me say this is an apolitical rant, but my experience tells me if governments reacted to activist opinion/demand and implied threats of negative media as they do to industry pleas or threats of political interference, we’d have better policies, more practical regulations and overall better government. So why does the bureaucracy fear activist indignation and not that of industry? In the grand scheme of things, our weakness is our roundheadedness. We follow the rules of engagement; the other side generally does not.
Political issue “management” assumes industry won’t rock the boat because, in part, of the revenge fear I described. The NGO can say what it wants to whom it wants with general impunity. The agency/department may know full well the NGO’s public accusations are 100% incorrect, dishonest or both. However, when was the last time you heard any government entity – local, state or federal – call out a bogus claim of an NGO?
The offending NGOs are self-proclaimed “grassroots” groups with “consumer,” “safety,” “welfare” or “environment” in their titles which loudly and often declare with great hubris they are the David to the industry/government Goliath, existing to “protect” consumers, the environment, animals or another “voiceless” group. They claim memberships in the millions, implying they control how all of those millions will vote in any election. They exist by raising baskets of tax-deductible dollars off consumer fears of the next real or concocted safety, environmental or economic crisis.
These NGOs are successful because politicians are predictable in their rabbit-like reaction to an actual or threatened media assault on their character. Success is also pegged to a predictable general media swarm to these attacks likes sharks to chum. The press multiplies the wrath/claims of these groups across the 24/7 news cycle, at the same feeding the considerable egos of the groups’ founders or principals. Ask yourself this – how many times have you read a newspaper story or seen a TV segment about something directly affecting or about animal agriculture and the only “source” reporting – other than maybe the government — is from an anti-industry NGO?
Politicians and bureaucrats understand you never make 100% of the people happy 100% of the time. They know they’re in for inflammatory press releases accusing them of destroying the environment, poisoning citizens or giving every 12-year-old a gun, a box of ammo and a six-pack. Hop to the industry side of the political spectrum, and the politico hears he/she is out destroy free enterprise, eliminate jobs, throw families into the street and/or cheer the end of capitalism as we know it. This is part of the gig you signed on for.
If the attacks from either side of an issue are worthy of response, let it be an honest one. If the allegation is wrong, say it’s wrong. If you did a good job, claim the credit and let it be your testimony. Tell the media to check its facts, or provide the facts that balance the story. The responsibility to take a difficult policy stance or render an objective program decision should never be abdicated by sitting on our thumbs out of fear of “public reaction.”