Is Flint Evidence of Government's Ineffectiveness in Regulating Government?

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Linking to an article in today’s The Hill by two professors, one from Indiana University and the other from Texas A&M, who argue that the failure in Flint is due to the inability of government to regulate government.  Professors Konisky’s and Teodoro’s premise goes as follows:

The ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan is a spectacular and profoundly troubling environmental protection failure. It is also a monumental failure of governance and public administration. Flint’s plight is only the most recent, dramatic and appalling illustration of an endemic weakness in the U.S. environmental regulatory regime: the difficulty of government regulating government.

Environmental protection is typically thought of as a matter of government regulation of individuals and privately-owned firms. But in the United States, tens of thousands of local, state and federal government agencies are subject to the same regulation as their private sector counterparts. Drinking water is perhaps the most familiar example: about 85 percent of Americans receive their drinking water service from a local government. The U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) obliges those government utilities to meet the same regulatory requirements as private, investor-owned utilities.

The trouble is that governments face incentives and constraints that make them more difficult to regulate than private firms. Unlike businesses, governments have contested, ambiguous missions and often are politically constrained from taking steps necessary for compliance. Public managers balance regulatory mandates against competing priorities like equity, affordability, and political responsiveness. Public officials must secure political support for the capital investments and operating expenditures required to meet environmental performance standards. Regulators are often legally limited in the penalties that they can impose on governments, and there is evidence that courts impose lower penalties on government violators. Consequently, the regulator’s usual array of enforcement instruments—fines, fees, and licensure—may be potent enough to alter a private firm’s behavior, but less effective when the regulated entity is a government.  Continue reading

Here is the entire academic paper by Konisky and Teodoro When Governments Regulate Governments.  Please continue to follow us here at the E&W Blog as we have more discussion on the failure of Cooperative Federalism in the case of Flint, Michigan.  The why’s and how’s, and how to avoid such failures in other communities.