Let's Be Careful What We Regulate

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Those who believe that government should be in charge of, and regulate, almost everything we do seem to have taken the September 11 terrorist attacks on our nation and their aftermath as an affirmation that they're right.

Since September 11, I have seen no fewer than three newspaper columns about the government's actions to prepare for war and to tighten national security that said in effect, "See, this just proves we need lots of government regulation, so let's not hear any more about deregulation of anything."

One columnist wrote that, "Just as important as increased spending will be the need for more regulation," and added, "September 11 has underscored the centrality of government in our lives."

These columnists of a collectivist bent - and a lot of other people, including some politicians - seem not to be able to distinguish between the need for government to act in a national emergency, such as we have now, and the need for government to contribute to the national well-being by keeping regulation to a minimum in most matters that don't involve national defense.

Even in an emergency, it's important not to confuse the two. We must do what is necessary to respond to, and protect against, terrorism. But once imposed, regulations - and the agencies that enforce them -- are difficult to abolish. Furthermore, there are a lot of things that government does badly, or cannot do as well as the private sector. This sometimes even includes aspects of national defense or security. It is important that we not forget that in the heat of crisis.

Let's look specifically at air travel. Expanding the sky marshals program is a law enforcement function, and clearly the federal government should provide sky marshals and pay for them. But do we really want, or need, to federalize airport security, which is not a law enforcement function? As the Reason Foundation's Robert Poole, an authority on airport operations, has said, "Merely changing the uniforms will not change either the nature of the work or the incentives to cut corners." Poole points out that most federal security is also provided by relatively low-wage contract personnel.

Right now, airport security is the joint responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration, airport operators and airlines. It's one more case of everybody's responsible, so nobody's really in charge.

Perhaps instead of federalizing airport security, we should consider the British model, which makes the airport operator responsible and accountable for all airport security, not just passenger screening. Security at the London airports (under private ownership, incidentally) has long been at a level unheard of in this country, and there is low turnover among passenger screening personnel, who earn decent wages.

There is also the question of whether we want the FAA to be in charge of airport security, considering what it has done - or rather, not done - with air traffic control.

U.S. air traffic controllers work in too many cases with outmoded equipment and obsolete computers. Meanwhile, across our northern border, Nav Canada, an independent user-owned corporation financed by user fees, has been controlling Canadian airspace since 1996. Since Nav Canada began operation, Canadian air traffic has grown by 20%, but delays have been reduced and customer satisfaction increased, all with only two reported operating safety irregularities per 100,000 aircraft movements.

Nav Canada has invested in new technology, cut overhead and increased staff and salaries. Because it is user-owned, it can take bids for that latest technology, then buy it and install it. By contrast, before the FAA can upgrade its systems, it has to get an appropriation from Congress, and then go through a procurement process that can take as much as six to eight years.

Government has never done very well at regulating transportation. The very first regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was set up in 1887 to regulate most transportation. The ICC was no success story - unless one considers it a success that railroads, airlines, and trucking companies prospered at the expense of consumers and businesses who felt the impact of the artificially high prices they had to pay before transportation was finally deregulated.

Perhaps it would be well to ask ourselves about any new regulatory proposal, "Is this really needed for the war effort, and is this the best way to do it?" And perhaps, "Can we live with this after the crisis is past?"