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Spillover from a catastrophe

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By Rob Witwer

There’s something singularly awful about watching the worst environmental disaster in our country’s history and knowing that, with all of America’s wealth and technological prowess, nothing has been done to prevent the ongoing catastrophe that threatens an entire way of life.

According to polls, a large and growing percentage of Americans blame the president for the lack of progress in containing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t count myself among them. In my mind, BP is fully responsible for the accident and the woefully inadequate response — and the company should be held fully accountable.

A more difficult question — and one that cannot be answered based on information available to the public right now — is whether the president, through the agencies he oversees, bears some responsibility in failing to prevent the disaster. 

But there is a danger here, one that goes beyond the immediate situation. It’s the tendency of our government to overcompensate for bad foresight by overreacting in the face of an emergency. Emotion is an essential human characteristic, but when it drives legislation, watch out for unintended consequences.

I saw it happen all the time at the state legislature. In one case, a colleague introduced a bill that would have required, by my calculation, 30 square feet of safety labels on a 2-square-foot child car seat. In another instance, a state representative dramatically brought a phalanx of local press to a committee room to promote a bill that essentially made kidnapping illegal — which, by the way, it already was. And on and on. 

When a high-profile news story gets into the hands of opportunistic politicians, be skeptical. Be very skeptical. 

In the coming months, the Gulf disaster will spawn a huge raft of legislation. Some will be good, some superfluous, and some downright terrible. Americans don’t need grandstanding; we need an intelligent response that ensures something like this will never happen again. Let’s hope our elected leaders have the wisdom to discern the difference.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”