You may have missed it, but the conservative media got all worked up last week over comments made by an Environmental Protection Agency administrator about “crucifying” oil companies. Senator James Inhofe—who claims to believe that only God, not oil companies run by mere mortals, can change the earth’s climate—released a years-old tape of EPA Region VI Administrator Al Armendariz talking about his regulatory philosophy. Here’s Armendariz’s quote as reported by most conservative, and alas, most mainstream news outlets:
It was kind of like how the Romans used to, you know, conquer those villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere and they’d find the first five guys they say and they’d crucify them. And then, you know, that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.
So the Obama EPA is on a medieval campaign against business! (“The Obama Administration: Against water boarding terrorists but for crucifying American businesses,” tweeted RedState editor Erick Erickson with typical subtlety). “An EPA official appointed by President Obama,” announced Fox News host Bret Baier, “said that his philosophy, talking to other EPA folks, was like the Romans conquering villages, saying that oil companies should be crucified.”
Industry allies got in on the act, too. Phil Kerpen, who until very recently was the principal policy and legislative strategist for the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, has a new gig running an outfit called “American Commitment,” which promptly launched a website called FireCrucifyAl.com. Users can submit letters to Congress and the administration calling for Armendariz’s job, because regulators should “[allow] businesses to succeed and expand. They shouldn’t crucify.”
But as Dave Weigel and others noted last week, the quote as presented in many outlets required some O’Keiffian editing. Here’s the full quote:
The Romans used to conquer little villages in the Mediterranean. They’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years.
And so you make examples out of people who are in this case not compliant with the law. Find people who are not compliant with the law, and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them, and there is a deterrent effect there. And, companies that are smart see that, they don’t want to play that game, and they decide at that point that it’s time to clean up.
And, that won’t happen unless you have somebody out there making examples of people. So you go out, you look at an industry, you find people violating the law, you go aggressively after them. And we do have some pretty effective enforcement tools. Compliance can get very high, very, very quickly.
That’s what these companies respond to is both their public image but also financial pressure. So you put some financial pressure on a company, you get other people in that industry to clean up very quickly.
All Armendariz was saying was that when companies broke the law, the EPA should make an example of them. That’s pretty much the definition of how regulatory action works.
Almost immediately, however, the administration threw Armendariz under the bus. Press secretary Jay Carney said at a briefing last week that the comments are an “inaccurate as a representation of, or characterization of the way that the EPA has operated under President Obama.” And today, Armendariz submitted his resignation letter. It was “immediately accepted” by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
It’s impossible to know for sure if Armendariz was forced to resign, though it seems likely—and at the very least, he wasn’t left much of a choice after essentially being reprimanded from the podium at the White House last week.
The administration may not have wanted this sort of distraction headed into the election, but in failing to defend Armendariz it failed to defend the basic principles of regulation—if there are no consequences for breaking the law, there is no regulation, and that’s all Armendariz was really saying.
It’s the sort of mistake Democrats love to make: prematurely bowing in the face of a manufactured, mini-firestorm simply in order to take the talking point off the table. (And it was mini—FireCrucifyAl.com records only seventy-three letters submitted to the administration).
But in the end, Armendiaz’s resignation endorsed the underlying narrative pushed by conservatives . (“EPA Official Who Sought To ‘Crucify’ Oil Companies Has Resigned,” reads a headline now up at Forbes.)
The EPA under Obama has been more substantively skittish, too: last fall the administration canceled planned smog rules after an intense industry lobbying campaign that demonized the regulations as expensive and harmful to hiring—a perception that was inevitably enforced by killing them. (The rules, it should be noted, were drafted under George W. Bush and, if anything, were too mellow.)
Naturally, none of these cave-ins have slowed the right-wing narrative. “Regulators just multiplying like proverbial rabbits and making it harder and harder for enterprises to grow,” Mitt Romney said this morning in New Hampshire. The rabbit comparison is probably apt—frightened bunnies, perhaps.