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Regulation as More than a Dirty Word

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Maren Trochmann
January 13, 2020

In 1906, American journalist and writer Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a story of the consequences of unregulated capitalism. His novel, based on his own undercover investigation, exposed deplorable working conditions and the exploitation of vulnerable workers through the saga of one immigrant family. The Jungle’s lasting legacy, however, might be Sinclair’s vivid exposé of the unsanitary conditions of animal slaughter and meat handling. Sinclair famously said of the public response, “I aimed at the public’s heart and accidentally hit it in the stomach.” The subsequent national outcry led the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act, the first laws in a series of significant consumer protection statutes.

These statutes, like all laws, would be just words on paper without associated agency rulemaking and public administration. Rulemaking fills in the how of legislation, creating regulations which shape how citizens experience government programs and policies. Rulemaking actions require a nuanced balancing act to achieve legislative intent with sensitivity to stakeholder and industry concerns, agency expertise and capacity, resource and budgetary constraints and presidential directives. The results of rulemaking—the associated government regulations—do more than merely improve consumer safety; they also impact how citizens experience government as it is tacitly interwoven into daily life.

Now, over a century after The Jungle, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced modernized regulations to amend inspection protocols for swine slaughter. The Final Rule, published on October 1, 2019 with little fanfare, gives pork companies a new option: utilize their own meat inspectors in lieu of third-party USDA experts. When processing plants adopt this approach, which critics call privatization and our field might call regulatory capture, those slaughterhouses become subject to fewer onsite USDA inspectors. Those plants would also no longer be subject to federal limits on, “Line speed,”—the rate at which swine carcasses can be moved through processing and inspection. In December 2019, two USDA inspectors filed whistleblower complaints about these new standards detailing how they are unable to effectively do their jobs and warning of contamination, “Mystery meat,” and health risks associated with the new arms-length oversight.

This deregulation aligns with broader objectives of the Trump Administration under its Executive Order 13771, “Reducing Regulations and Controlling Regulatory Costs,” which mandates that federal agencies eliminate two existing regulations for every new one with the overall goal of reducing costs to industry, consumers and the federal government. The Final Rule on Modernization of Swine Slaughter complies; the USDA estimates recurring net benefits of $8.73 million in savings to the agency and $87.64 million in savings to industry. Per the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), USDA published a Proposed Rule to provide public notice and comment periods. The Agency notes that it received over 83,000 comments from trade associations representing the meat industry, private companies, consumer advocacy organizations, animal welfare organizations, labor unions, worker advocacy organizations and private citizens. The Agency response in the Final Rule documents commenters’ many concerns about contamination, consumer health and worker safety. Notably, the USDA asserts it lacks authority to enforce working condition standards—concerns which echo those Sinclair detailed over a century ago. The USDA additionally denies consumer safety issues and instead estimates improved health benefits to the public based on potential averted cases of Salmonella. The implementation of the Final Rule and related whistleblower complaints suggest that the Rule may have the opposite effect: deregulation may result in unintended health risks to the general public and increased hazards to workers.

This movement towards deregulation represents a longstanding debate which predates the Trump Administration. While the APA provides a framework for rulemaking, presidential administrations guide this activity to align with their political interests, perceived mandates and ultimate goals. Executive Orders and political appointees shape these outcomes by clarifying objectives for executive agencies. For decades, presidents have been issuing and rescinding executive orders guiding the Executive Branch’s influence on public policies and programs through rulemaking. Administrations often issue these Executive Orders along party lines with republican administrations focusing on economic costs and reducing governmental oversight, as well as democratic administrations incorporating social, environmental and scientific costs and benefits into their mandated regulatory analysis.

Despite this enduring debate, often Americans think of regulations as a costly symptom of government overreach and an unnecessary constraint on economic growth, rather than a necessary component of lawmaking and multifaceted policy implementation. The average citizen may only hear of regulatory changes when consequences to the general public are immediate and startling. Media attention, such as the outcry after the USDA whistleblowers’ claims, focuses attention on this otherwise opaque but impactful aspect of public service. The misunderstanding of regulations as a mere device to protect consumers or hinder private sector economic growth obscures a more complex reality of public administration and government regulations as inextricable aspects of our daily lives. Now, just as in 1906, limited public attention in a headline-grabbing world tends to focus on the most simplistic fixes to the most sensational problems. Perhaps Upton Sinclair hit the public in the stomach because effects to consumers are tangible, widespread and immediate. Perhaps many Americans view, “Regulation,” as a dirty word because we never notice the less observable effects of well-structured regulations.

Author: Maren Trochmann is an Assistant Professor at the College of Charleston where she teaches MPA and undergraduate courses in ethics, public administration, and human resources management. Her research interests include rulemaking, bureaucratic discretion, and social equity. 

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