Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Busybody bureaucrats? Regulators gone wild?

tdominick@thestate.com

STATE HEALTH inspectors swooped in on three abortion clinics this fall, making unscheduled inspections that turned up regulatory violations and resulted in suspended licenses and fines that are still being negotiated. The most frequently mentioned violations involved paperwork problems and aborted fetuses being sterilized with steam rather than incinerated.

Environmental regulators at the Department of Health and Environmental Control have been busy ordering dam owners to lower lake levels, hire engineers to perform inspections, make repairs and report back to the agency. Pronto.

Last month, the state Department of Social Services said that nearly 60 child-care homes had closed since the agency started conducting unannounced inspections — some after inspectors found violations, some simply because they weren’t willing to face inspectors without warning.

Are these examples of regulatory overreach? Abuses of discretion by busybody bureaucrats using red-tape requirements to hound political targets? Cover-your-backside harassment of dam owners suddenly held to a higher standard? An out-of-control bureaucracy bullying small-business owners out of business and meddling in child-care matters that are none of its business?

I don’t think so, in any of those cases.

Maybe most of the problems at the abortion clinics involved paperwork, but when paperwork documents compliance with a significant state law, it’s derelict for the state not to demand that it be produced.

Maybe DHEC had little evidence of problems with dams that did not breach in the early October deluge, but when it becomes clear that an agency has not been adequately enforcing its regulations, it’s reasonable to step back and reassess.

Maybe — gee, I can’t think of an excuse for people who are providing care for twice as many children as the law allows, while getting paid as if they are complying with that law.

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Of course, I don’t generally complain about red tape and bureaucrats and overregulation when regulators do their jobs.

As for the people who do complain, well, they’ve been remarkably silent in these high-profile regulatory crackdowns, even though the first two clearly were motivated by something other than a reasonable suspicion that the specific clinics and dams were a problem.

My guess is that the anti-regulators have been silent because even the most adamant libertarian wouldn’t dare speak out against strict enforcement of dam regulations these days. My guess is that there’s a high correlation between the people who think regulation is a four-letter word and those who think abortion ought to be illegal; there’s certainly a high correlation among elected officials.

When DHEC issued its first orders against the abortion clinics, Gov. Haley declared that “We will not tolerate law breaking of any kind.” It was quite a statement from a governor who does not always let pesky little things like the law get in her way, and who has been an aggressive combatant in the war on regulations.

Maybe this would be a good time for a little honesty when it comes to that war.

Maybe this would be a good time to admit that our outrage over power-grabbing, business-stymieing regulators has less to do with power-grabbing, business-stymieing regulators than with our feelings about what’s being regulated. Maybe it would be good to admit that we’re outraged when they enforce regulations that we don’t like, and delighted when they enforce regulations that we do like, whether they crack down on activities we oppose or simply enforce common-sense laws — like keeping dangerous chemicals out of reach of children you are paid to keep safe.

How many people besides the owner gets upset, for instance, when DHEC bureaucrats use their regulatory powers to shut down a restaurant that can’t pass health inspections?

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Clearly, some regulations are nothing more than protectionism. I’m reminded of one that prohibits people from buying coffins from anyone except funeral homes; it was written by funeral-home owners.

Clearly, government can, and should, do a better job of limiting paperwork, of sharing information across agencies rather than requiring people to fill out the same information time after time. And if that’s what regulation opponents want to focus on, then fabulous.

Just as clearly, a lot of requirements that seem ridiculous to an honest person look quite reasonable when you realize they’re written to protect against people who are not honest. Just as clearly, beyond a handful of outrageous examples, it’s a lot easier to rail against regulations in general than to get into a debate about the goals and merits of a specific regulation.

In 2013, Gov. Haley charged a task force with reviewing state regulations and weeding out the ones that “stymie the private sector and hold our economy back.”

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Her hand-picked panel spent a year reviewing more than 3,000 regulations. It proposed eliminating fewer than 50. Which is to say that it decided that 98 percent of the regulations needed to remain in place.

My guess is that we could do without more of those regulations. My guess also is that the governor’s regulatory reviewers were correct to conclude that the vast majority serve a good purpose. Like making sure the dams that hold back water sufficient to wash out buildings and wash away cars and people are in decent working order.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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