If you want to understand why so many Americans, including many of us right here in northeastern Minnesota, feel that the system is rigged from top-to-bottom in favor of those with connections and money, just consider some of the local news stories we’ve reported over the past several months.
Earlier this year, we reported on the hand-over of planning and zoning authority from Greenwood Township to St. Louis County, a move fueled by the perception that there was too much favoritism at play in local zoning decisions. Supporters of the change argued that St. Louis County’s planning department, with its professional planners, would be less subject to crass political manipulation.
But as we report this week, it hasn’t always worked out that way. It turns out you can hand off the work to professional planners, who do their job well in most cases, but that doesn’t mean that raw politics won’t intercede in the end, even when St. Louis County is overseeing zoning in Greenwood. And that undermines the ability of citizens to trust that the system is fair. When laws and ordinances only apply to the little guy, while those with political connections and money routinely skirt the rules, we no longer live under a system based on law, but rather on power and privilege for the few.
There are many more dots to connect here. We’ve also reported recently on the quarter-century long (and, so far, unsuccessful) effort by the state’s Pollution Control Agency to bring U.S. Steel’s Minntac tailings basin into compliance with state water pollution standards. The violations are significant, and hardly in dispute, and the agency has been under increasing pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, tribal governments, and environmental groups to begin to clean up the problem. But each time MPCA officials have tried, U.S. Steel wields its get-out-of-jail-free card, otherwise known as the Iron Range delegation, which quickly passes a new law to prevent the MPCA from doing its job.
It, of course, goes right on up to Washington. We’ve been reporting for weeks now on Rep. Rick Nolan’s effort to set aside the rules and procedures laid down in federal law to clear the way for the U.S Forest Service’s land exchange with PolyMet, which is being challenged in the courts. Whether you agree with Nolan’s end-around or not, it’s tough to deny that it is just one more example of how the laws simply don’t apply to the politically connected when lawmakers are willing to cavalierly carve out sweetheart exceptions to benefit special interests.
Whether we’re talking about laws designed to protect the environment or, in the case of the PolyMet, to protect the taxpayers, the principle is the same and it paints a troubling portrait of a playing field that is tilting ever further, and that is increasingly vulnerable to the kind of corruption we’ve come to associate with the era of Tammany Hall here in the U.S., or with some Third World governments today.
In the U.S., we made considerable progress beginning in the early 1900s through roughly the 1970s, passing major legislation to establish procedures and processes designed to insulate the day-to-day decision-making of government from politicians and overarching political influence. Policies such as the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were all part of this important reform era in American government. It’s worth noting that the acronym NEPA is most often inaccurately described, even by most politicians in my experience, as the National Environmental Protection Act. But the law wasn’t written to protect the environment, per se. Instead, it established a set of procedures that helped to ensure that all citizens had a voice at the table when it came to major governmental actions, whether it was building a road, or permitting a mine. And it provided a means for successful appeal of those decisions if citizens could demonstrate that a government decision was arbitrary or capricious, which helped keep the bureaucrats who administer these policies on their toes. Finally, NEPA helped to ensure that government decision-makers were adequately informed of all the potential effects of a project in the belief that more information leads to better decisions.
These reforms weren’t perfect, but they created a decision-making structure for government that was one of the most transparent, inclusive, and universally-respected in the world. It justifiably gave Americans confidence that governmental decisions were based on valid findings and clear-eyed consideration, rather than on special interest favoritism or corruption. And Americans are rightly concerned as more and more politicians, from the White House on down, seem intent on short-circuiting these processes through personal, political intervention.
We often hear politicians here in Minnesota talk about the state’s strong environmental laws or zoning ordinances that are supposed to guard against pollution and other damage. What they are referring to, for the most part, are state laws and county ordinances modeled on the APA and NEPA.
But each time the politicians carve out another exception for a well-connected special interest, whether it’s a decision of the county planning commission, the Legislature, or Congress, it erodes the foundation of the decision-making edifice our nation has built. If the well-connected can simply go to a Congressman or a legislator to hamstring a regulatory agency or override a court’s jurisdiction over a matter of significant public interest, it becomes all the more difficult to claim that we are a nation of laws, except for the law of the jungle, where might makes right.
When Americans see that Wall Street executives can skate away without consequence from a financial calamity they helped create, while millions of average Americans lose their homes and life savings, or that a politically connected lake property owner can get a county commissioner to grease the skids to permit a clear violation of the ordinance, their alarm is well-justified.
At a time when a mountain of special interest money is literally pouring into our political system, the breakdown of the checks that once helped to ensure fair dealing by government is particularly worrisome. The specter of old-fashioned pay-for-play can no longer be dismissed.
We all need to recognize this trend and resist when politicians seem intent to turn the clock back to the Gilded Age. Americans have a right to expect the fair application of the law from their government. But we’ll lose that right unless we stand up and fight for it.