By James Goodwin, Center for Progressive Reform
Last week’s televised climate town hall saw several Democratic presidential candidates outline an impressive array of policies that, if implemented effectively, offer some measure of hope for averting the worst consequences of the climate crisis for us and future generations. The operative concept there – lurking in the background and too often taken for granted – is effective implementation. The fact of the matter is that meeting our country’s greatest challenges – climate change, economic inequality, systemic racism, access to quality health care – will require effective implementation, and that in turn will require a more robust, modernized, and inclusive regulatory system than we currently have.
Conservatives have long vilified the U.S. system of regulatory safeguards, while establishment Democrats – when not trying to ignore it altogether – have at best accepted regulation only grudgingly and apologetically. As demonstrated at a June CPR conference, though, progressives are staking out a new, more enlightened position, one that recognizes regulation as not just a legitimate part of our democracy and economy, but also as essential to achieving their vision of a more just and equitable society.
That conference, Regulation as Social Justice: Empowering People Through Public Protections, represented a first-of-its-kind attempt at bringing together a diverse group of leading progressive advocates and academics to examine closely the role the regulatory system now plays in their work to promote justice and equity and to identify needed reforms to better advance this work. The conference’s proceedings were built around two innovative variations on facilitator-led small group discussions, which we called “Idea Exchanges.” During these sessions, the more than 60 participants in attendance shared their unique and experience-based insights on how the current regulatory system is failing marginalized members of our society, including the working poor and people of color, and how those failures can be fixed.
Today, CPR takes the next step, building upon the success of the gathering as we release Regulation as Social Justice: A Crowdsourced Blueprint for Building a Progressive Regulatory System. The report collects the perspectives and recommendations from the various small group discussions and synthesizes them into a comprehensive, action-oriented agenda for building a progressive regulatory system. The report sets the table for this agenda by providing a detailed assessment of how the regulatory system has become broken. In particular, progressive policy advocates identified four broad contributing factors: weak and outdated laws; unnecessary implementation barriers that agencies face; excessive corporate influence; and obstacles to meaningful public participation.
To address these failures, the Crowdsourced Blueprint outlines a series of reforms directed at Congress, federal regulatory agencies, the federal courts, and state governments. Broadly speaking, these reforms seek to change the regulatory system in two key ways. First, they try to reestablish the public as the locus of concern of policymaking, particularly with regard to the working poor, people of color, and other marginalized members of society. For example, these reforms call on policymakers to incorporate a place-based focus and attention to cumulative impacts in regulatory development, as well as to abandon decision-making tools and procedures such as cost-benefit analysis that systematically privilege the interests of corporate elites.
Second, many of the reforms are designed to empower ordinary Americans to shape how regulations are developed, implemented, and enforced. These reforms would not only provide new opportunities for meaningful public participation in the regulatory system; they would also curb or eliminate institutions like the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) that for too long have served to tilt the regulatory playing field in the favor of corporate special interests at the expense of public welfare. Among the public-empowering reforms included in the Crowdsourced Blueprintare calls for strengthening citizen regulatory enforcement tools and requiring agencies to establish teams of local engagement staff who would work with community leaders to obtain a comprehensive understanding of their regulatory programs’ community-level impacts.
To increase the usefulness of the Crowdsourced Blueprint, CPR is also launching a web-based library of materialsdeveloped by progressive advocates that provides more details on the reforms included the report. We will continuously update this library as additional materials become available. We also invite you to contact us and suggest materials for inclusion. Our goal is to create a comprehensive online clearinghouse for information on reforms that would contribute to the development of a progressive regulatory system that advances the goals of social justice and equity.
The Crowdsourced Blueprint lays down a new marker in the broader debate over the proper role of the regulatory system. The reforms it contains confirm that the regulatory system, if properly constructed, will be essential to achieving the progressive vision of America that is committed to advancing the principles of social justice and equity. By protecting us all against a variety of health, safety, environmental, and consumer hazards, a progressive regulatory system would avert the kinds of harms that can amplify institutionalized injustice. Moreover, by providing greater and more meaningful public participation opportunities, a progressive regulatory system would shift more political power to ordinary Americans, breaking up the near-monopoly of political power that corporate special interests now enjoy in the regulatory space.
Much work remains to advance the progressive regulatory reform agenda, but early indicators suggest that this movement is beginning to build momentum. Just last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released her plan to tackle corruption in the federal government. It includes reforms to address “corporate capture of our federal agencies” and guarantee that citizens have meaningful access to the courts to pursue civil justice.