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Pollsters have detected a shift in American attitudes toward government following Sept. 11. In a word, the public seems more open to the idea that government may have the right stuff to solve major problems.
The change is no surprise, given the national concerns about terrorism. But there’s more to the shift than homeland security, or even Enron. After 20 years, the words “Big Government” have lost some of their potency as a political rallying cry. Instead, they’re becoming more like a Rorschach ink blot test, a measure of how a particular person sees a particular issue rather than a statement of firmly held political philosophy.
Consider Clinton-era efforts to regulate workplace conditions. To many facility executives, the proposed rules on ergonomics and indoor air quality undoubtedly fell into the category of Big Government. But what about federal regulation of sprinklers in commercial buildings — do facility executives want the Consumer Product Safety Commission to be stripped of its authority to order recalls of sprinklers it finds to be defective? That’s what would happen if a court rules in favor of a suit by Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Company, which claims the agency has no authority to regulate sprinklers used in commercial buildings.
Is sprinkler regulation a good example of Big Government? That depends. Federal regulation is often burdensome and costly. And whether the term “Big Government” pops up or not, any challenge to federal regulation raises the question of Washington’s proper role.
When it comes to that role, the pendulum has only started to swing in the direction of more government action. It’s hard to imagine a president announcing that the era of Big Government is back. It’s less hard to conceive of the phrase “Big Business” regaining some of the opprobrium it has had in the past. Sweeping regulations have historically been triggered by a widespread sense that powerful corporations, in pursuit of profits, have abandoned social responsibilities. That perspective is worth keeping in mind today when decisions are made about a range of facility issues, from workplace conditions to environmental impact. Federal rules on IAQ and ergonomics may be dead, but the concerns behind them are not.