Ronald Reagan famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ” Three decades later, American life is micromanaged at every imaginable level. Citizens’ basic day to day activities are subject to government scrutiny. We endure a federal government that has invaded virtually every aspect of our lives—from light bulbs, to toilets, to lemonade stands and beyond.
Our federal government regulates everything and anything. How much water goes into your commode. How much water comes out of your showerhead. The temperature of the water in your washing machine. How many miles to the gallon your car must get.
Americans’ privacy is violated at every turn. Since the implementation of the Patriot Act, your banking records, your credit card account, your gun registration, and your phone bill have become easy pickings for government snoops, who can do pretty much anything they like with your personal information without the hassle of having to get a warrant. The government can literally break down your door, seize your property, and even seize you, based on rules and regulations created by unelected bureaucrats with zero accountability.
Congress has abdicated its constitutional role as the federal body that makes laws by allowing agencies like the EPA, FDA, USDA, and TSA to make their own laws through regulations and red tape. These agencies have assumed frightening new powers over the everyday lives of American citizens, giving these government entities free rein over you and me in ways unprecedented in our country’s history.
Our ever-growing nanny state now includes an arsenal of unconstitutional and unprecedented surveillance and law enforcement powers. These government powers aren’t exactly subtle in action or intent. Does anyone think a government with thirty-eight armed federal agencies is kidding around? They’re not. They mean business.
Everyone understands that some federal agents must be armed. But most Americans are surprised to learn that the Department of Agriculture, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency all have armed SWAT teams. Why do such agencies need small armies to enforce, supposedly, mere fishing and hunting regulations? Why do we need to arm government bureaucrats to protect the environment?
The 1985 dystopian movie Brazil was a comedy about life under a totalitarian bureaucracy. In one scene, a man in full body armor with an automatic weapon is seen scaling a high- rise apartment building. Finally reaching a balcony, he climbs over the railing and knocks on the door. The voice inside the apartment asks, “Who is it?” The armed man answers, “The plumber.”
In Brazil’s imaginary police state, the only way for this plumber to evade armed bureaucrats enforcing “regulations” was to arm himself.
American dystopia didn’t come overnight. President Obama has introduced and implemented thousands of new regulations, many of which are needless and don’t make any sense. But we can’t blame President Obama for everything (though historians will allot him his fair share). The regulatory morass that now engulfs us came incrementally, accumulating over time to create the monstrosity we face today. Democrats and Republicans alike deserve blame.
Many Americans remember the now infamous mercury-laden Chinese-made $4 light bulbs that were mandated by Congress in 2007—a mandate by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Republican president. In the name of energy efficiency, Congress decided to ban incandescent light bulbs, which are now supposed to be phased out completely by 2014.
But, as noted, the alternative to incandescent light bulbs isn’t much better. When I sharply questioned a Department of Energy bureaucrat about the light bulb mandate and consumer choice, my Democrat colleagues said that the ban on incandescent bulbs was beyond criticism because a bipartisan majority had passed it. Beyond criticism? Government overreach doesn’t become constitutional or morally right simply because both parties agree to it.
I began my questioning of the DOE bureaucrat by asking, “Are you pro-choice?” She hesitated and then responded, trying to be clever, “For light bulbs!” I told her that she was not pro-choice. I told her that she was only for consumer “choice” if Americans were forced to “choose” from a list of government-approved light bulbs.
The incandescent light bulb is no longer a choice—so decrees our government.
When a Fish and Wildlife SWAT team raided the Gibson Guitar Corporation in 2009, seizing millions in property and padlocking their warehouses, it was not under any authority given by President Obama, but President Bush. Republicans and Democrats had joined together in a bipartisan fashion to make it a crime to break foreign laws and regulations.
How did this happen in America?
Since becoming a United States senator, I have been inside the halls of power in Washington, D.C., fighting to change this alarming and tyrannical direction America seems to be taking. It amazes me how many Washington leaders either don’t know or don’t seem to care that these things are happening. They think that I’m being an alarmist, when I’m hearing horror stories from my constituents and others that should be cause for concern to all Americans. Often I can find allies willing to help, but much more often I find politicians who only want to stand in the way of any changes to the status quo. Meanwhile, too many American citizens find themselves harassed and abused by their government with no hope of recourse.
We have been asleep. Many of us have thought simply electing Republicans was enough to protect our privacy, property, and constitutional freedoms, but we failed to realize that it makes a significant difference what type of Republicans we elect.
Understanding how we’ve arrived at this point would be much simpler if we could just blame those bad ol’ Democrats—but the story of regulatory overreach and abuse is unquestionably bipartisan. It is a story of congressional abdication of power, a Congress that allowed its rightful constitutional powers to be siphoned off by a runaway regulatory bureaucracy. This bureaucracy has become more powerful than any senator or congressman and in some instances even more powerful than the president.
The stories in this book will shock you. First-generation immigrants jailed for moving dirt on their own land. A nurse separated from her small child and sentenced to eighty-seven months in prison—also for moving dirt on her own land.
Though it might sound like it, these are not jokes.
Did an arrogant and armed “wetlands police” arrive with the election of President Obama? No, this rogue government agency’s origins come from a seemingly responsible piece of legislation called the Clean Water Act. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush vowed that America would lose no “wetlands” under his watch (a vow he unfortunately kept better than his “no new taxes” pledge). Under the first President Bush, a government wetlands manual was created that essentially emboldened federal agents’ power, allowing them to seek out and punish private property owners for doing nothing more than moving dry dirt on dry land. The federal government had—however erroneously, illogically, or nonsensically—defined these dry areas as “wetlands.” It turns out that a wetlands is simply whatever an agency like the EPA says it is—no matter how many experts or even other government officials say to the contrary. In this book, you will read stories of property owners jailed for doing nothing more than committing the “crime” of moving dirt on their own property. Seriously.
Going after agencies like the EPA or being critical of ridiculous laws and regulations is enough to invite accusations that you somehow don’t care about the environment. At the liberal website Think Progress, blogger Tonya Somanader wrote in 2011: “A steadfast enemy to the air he breathes, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is a never-ending source of attacks on environmental regulations and the EPA.”
So there you have it. Because I “attack” government agencies, I must somehow be against the environment, say many on the Left.
I consider myself a Crunchy-Con—that is, a conservative who likes, enjoys, and wants to conserve the environment.
I compost. I built my composting bins from wood I salvaged from my kids’ old tree fort. I have a Giant Sequoia that I planted and am trying to cultivate in my yard in Kentucky. I have personally dug up and transplanted dozens of trees, some of which are now over thirty feet tall. One tree that I’m particularly proud of is a cherry tree that descends from the cherry trees of the tidal basin adjacent to the Jefferson Memorial, given to the United States by Japan’s Emperor Hirohito in the early 1900s.
I am a biker, a hiker, a rafter and a kayaker. I believe no one has the right to pollute another person’s property, and if it occurs the polluter should be made to pay for cleanup and damages. I am not against all regulation. I am against overzealous regulation. Nor am I against all government. I often joked on the campaign trail that I was for $2.2 trillion worth of government—what we currently bring in in revenue—but certainly not for the $3.8 trillion of government we currently spend.
Conservatives enjoy the environment as much as liberals. But conservatives differ from liberals in that we appreciate how industries restore and replenish the environment. We conservatives understand that man uses the environment to create the comforts of the modern world, and that regulations require a balancing act between economic growth, jobs and the environment.
The Clean Water Act, like many regulations, started out with good intentions. It prohibited dumping “pollutants” into the “navigable waters” of the United States. Who could argue against that? The problem arose when environment courts began defining dirt as a “pollutant” and plain old backyards as “navigable” streams.
Since at least the Great Depression, the courts have decided that pollution is to be controlled not by tort law and regional acceptance of norms, but through federal regulation. Some have argued that a robust tort law approach would actually have allowed less pollution or damage to the environment than a regulatory approach. This is not to say there should be no federal role—even strict originalist judges understand that the Constitution allows regulation of activities that can indirectly affect innocent third parties if the activity in question involves interstate commerce. No one is saying there should be no federal role in environmental regulation—only that there has been too much federal regulation, much of it to the detriment of the environment.
Often opponents want to depict the position of libertarians and conservatives on this issue as being uncaring about the environment, or the health consequences of pollution. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, many limited government advocates point to how government regulation often exempts big business or big agriculture. Many of these regulations actually benefit big business and punish the small businessman or farmer, most of whom can’t afford lawyers to guide them through byzantine regulations and mountains of paperwork.
Author Joel Salatin is a sustainable farmer who writes frequently about how overregulation has hampered and damaged the small farmer. Salatin’s belief in less regulation does not mean that he somehow accepts pollution. He simply advocates what many libertarians advocate: strict property rights and swift recourse if someone pollutes your land, your water, or your air.
In fact, it has been argued that a property-rights approach would have prevented the pollution of Lake Michigan, Boston Harbor, and other sites where municipalities either directly dumped sewage and other pollutants, or issued licenses to private business that allowed those businesses to pollute.
When I was interviewed by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart while promoting my first book The Tea Party Goes to Washington, Stewart asked me about pollution and government regulation. I replied that virtually all the evidence shows that levels of airborne and waterborne pollutants have been declining for decades. Stewart said, “But that’s because of federal pollution regulations.” I agreed, explaining that the point is not that we shouldn’t advocate regulations, but that if the current regulations are working—why must we now make the regulations so severe that most business can’t afford to comply?
In some cases, businesses cannot physically comply because the regulations make demands beyond the scientific methods that exist for compliance. This was the case when I fought against increasing the severity of the Clean Air Transport Act. The amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide allowed to be emitted had been lowered only a few years ago, and the four-decade trend for these emissions had been declining steadily. In fact, these byproducts of burning coal were at their lowest levels ever.
On the Senate floor, I showed my colleagues a picture of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from the early twentieth century and then a picture of Pittsburgh today. The contrast was amazing. In the early 1900s, the street lanterns were often on at noon. A man’s white shirt would blacken from the soot in the air. And now Pittsburgh’s skyline gleams and sparkles. (Granted, some of these improvements might have something to do with the demise of the steel industry, but that’s another story.)
Nevertheless, the obvious deduction is that pollution has been declining for the last hundred years or more. The peak of America’s pollution problems were likely in the late 1800s, when not only did industry lack pollution controls but also many homes were often heated with coal.
This point is well made by John Stossel of Fox News, who in one of his television specials asks a fifth-grade class a simple question: Is the environment more polluted now or forty years ago? The overwhelming majority of kids raise their hands and answer without hesitation: “Now, of course.”
Al Gore and the environmental zealots have co-opted the debate on these issues. The Left has successfully politicized any public discussions about the environment and regulation. Probably no single issue is more misrepresented and distorted on a regular basis than the environment.
Try arguing the facts, and instead of having a rational debate, your opponents will show you a movie of the Statue of Liberty submerged or polar bears drowning. Even the Senate floor is not immune from arguments based primarily on emotion and distortion of the truth. When I argued against regulation increases on cross-air transport, which deals with potential airborne pollutants crossing state lines, Barbara Boxer came to the floor with pictures of children with masks inhaling oxygen. She claimed that if we didn’t accept the more stringent regulations 35,000 children would die. Really? She claimed that the increased incidents of asthma attacks were from pollutants. She personally blamed me and accused me of wanting to kill 35,000 children. I’m not kidding.
Try having an intelligent discussion with someone who is accusing you of supporting genocide. It’s not possible.
I responded to Boxer that if the incidents of asthma attacks were rising and the levels of pollutants had been falling for decades, then these two things would be inversely proportional. In other words, decreasing pollution was correlated with increasing asthma attacks; or, put another way, increasing pollution would be correlated with lower asthma attacks. The truth of the matter is that the evidence points to no correlation. Objective scientists say that the cause of asthma is not yet fully understood. The point is that when we allow arguments to degenerate into emotions and platitudes we lose track of two important things: 1. Are the current regulations actually working? 2. Will the new regulations mean loss of jobs?
Another issue that came up during my first session in the Senate was pipeline regulations. Eight people died in a terrible pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, in 2010. Politicians in Washington are quick to jump at the first possible moment to “fix” a problem. Then, of course, they take credit for fixing the problem. But these politicians often take action so hastily that they not only mistake identifying the actual problem, they cause other unintended problems in the process.
Groucho Marx understood it well when he said, “Politics is the art of looking everywhere for problems, finding them, misdiagnosing the problem and applying the wrong remedy. The pipeline issue fit this exact description. Senators Boxer and Dianne Feinstein leaped at the opportunity to take legislative action after the San Bruno tragedy, to show their constituents that they cared. These senators presented a series of regulatory reforms for pipelines.
Boxer and Feinstein wanted to pass their bill by unanimous consent, which means there is no floor debate and no amendment attached or considered—and, more times than not, nobody actually reads the bill. I put a hold on their bill. It could not pass without the unanimous consent of all hundred senators, which I was not willing to give. How did Senators Boxer and Feinstein respond? Did they attempt to contact my office or call me to ask what my objections were? Did they try to even see if I had any legitimate reason for concern? Hell no—they called a reporter instead and proceeded to read me the riot act in the press. They attempted to portray me as someone who was uncaring and not serious about addressing this problem.
I was not amused. I was also not about to take their abuse lying down. We responded that we were holding the bill for two reasons: First, the accident report on the San Bruno explosion was due to come out the following week. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to actually read the accident report and consider it before deciding on sweeping reforms? And second, Feinstein and Boxer’s bill grandfathered in old pipelines—this meant that old pipelines would be exempt from the new rules! This meant that the over fifty-year-old San Bruno pipeline itself, where the fatal tragedy had occurred, would be exempt from the new rules these senators wanted to impose. Something seemed fishy here.
In Washington, bills are often touted publicly to placate a certain part of the electorate or a particular politician’s voter base, but on closer examination you’ll find that nothing is actually done to really fix any problems. Sometimes this occurs intentionally, and sometimes it occurs unintentionally simply because everyone is in such a rush.
The more my staff and I examined Boxer and Feinstein’s bill, the more we were concerned that it would not fix the problem, and that the victims of the San Bruno explosion and their families would be tricked into thinking that Washington had actually done something positive or preventive—that politicians somehow were atoning for this tragedy by enacting better regulations.
As we investigated, we discovered that not only were older pipelines being exempted from the new regulations, but also that this was not the first time this problem had been papered over.
In 1985, the National Transportation Safety Board’s Office of Pipeline Safety reported on two explosions in Kentucky where deaths occurred. The report specifically stated that one much needed reform was to end the exemption of older pipelines from standard regulations. This reform never happened, and twenty-six years later, Boxer and Feinstein’s legislation would have simply papered over the problem again.
I said “No way!” During my Senate campaign, I had promised to read bills before voting on them, and that I would not be a rubber stamp for well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless reforms. We won this battle and my staff was able to include a requirement for testing of the older pipelines. Just weeks later, this test discovered another faulty part, in a different section, of the San Bruno pipeline that had previously exploded.
If I had not opposed Boxer and Feinstein’s unanimous consent vote, read the bill, investigated the problem, and helped institute this testing, the problematic part of the pipeline could have feasibly gone undetected. There is always a greater danger in Washington, D.C., of politicians acting hastily without thinking, than in debating and contemplating any new rules and regulations.
As the stories of regulatory abuse unfold in the following pages, don’t be fooled by those on the Left who demonize me as someone who believes in no government regulations. My argument is that regulations need to be reasonable and economically practical. My point is that the obvious need for safety and pollution control should, and can, be balanced with a need for job creation and economic growth.
What scares most businessmen and women is that the Obama administration has gotten out of control, with environmental extremists running amok. In 2010, EPA administrator Al Armendariz reinforced this notion when he described at a public event how he viewed regulation enforcement: “It was kind of like how the Romans used to, you know, conquer villages in the Mediterranean. . . . They’d go into a little
Turkish town somewhere, they’d find the first five guys they saw, and they’d crucify them.” Armendariz added, “You make examples out of people who are, in this case, not complying with the law . . . and you hit them as hard as you can.”
Luckily, Armendariz was forced to resign, but as long as zealots like this are allowed to run our monstrous regulatory bureaucracies, America’s growth and progress is endangered. We need a reassessment of whether current regulations are actually working; and regarding any new regulations, we must take into account what their effect will be on job creation. Then, and only then, will we begin to thrive as a country again.
It’s amazing the many ways in which our federal government is now completely out of control. It’s maddening how oppressive and intrusive everyday life has become for millions of Americans who are just trying to go about their lives and be happy.
I found out on a recent trip just how long and invasive the tentacles of our federal government have become. I was flying out of Nashville back to Washington, D.C., where I was scheduled to speak to over 200,000 people—the largest crowd of my career—at the March for Life. But the TSA had other ideas. After I had removed my belt, my glasses, my wallet, and my shoes, the scanner and TSA still demanded something else—my dignity. I refused. After they told me that the scanner had detected something unusual near my leg, I offered to show them my leg. They were not interested. They wanted to pat me down. They wanted to touch me. I asked to be rescanned. They refused. I was detained in a ten-foot-square cubicle designed for potential terrorists. I explained to the TSA agents that I was a frequent flyer, and that just days prior I was allowed to be rescanned when the scanner had made an error.
At no time did I ask for special treatment, though I did insist that I, like all travelers, should be shown common courtesy. I was repeatedly instructed not to leave the cubicle. When I used my mobile phone to have my office start researching why the TSA would not simply rescreen me, I was threatened. The TSA agents told me that I would now be subjected to full-body pat-down. I asked if I could simply start the screening process to show that the screener had made an error. I was told no, that once the process had been started and I had used my phone to call for help, I must now submit to a pat-down or simply not fly. I thought to myself, “Have the terrorists won?” Have we sacrificed our liberty and our dignity for a false security?
Finally, the head of the Nashville airport TSA arrived—after I had missed my flight. He seemed inclined to let me be rescreened. Interestingly, the scanner did not go off the second time through. The TSA agents who had just given me the third degree said that some of the alarms are simply random. I was befuddled. So this agent was saying, admitting even, that passengers who do everything right—remove their belts, their wallets, their shoes, their glasses, and all the contents of their pockets—can still be stopped and forced to undergo a patdown randomly? Travelers are tricked into believing the scanner actually detected something, by design?
I had been through some of this regulation nonsense before with TSA chief administrator John Pistole. In the spring of 2011, a six-year-old girl from my hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky, was subjected to an invasive search despite her parents’ objections. Pistole claimed that small children were indeed a risk because a girl in Kandahar, Afghanistan, had exploded a bomb in a market there. But Director Pistole, I said—this girl wasn’t from Kandahar. She wasn’t in Afghanistan. Isn’t there a significant difference? Pistole explained in writing that the TSA had concluded that because a child in a market in Afghanistan exploded a bomb, all American children needed to be evaluated as potential threats. My response was that if you treat everyone equally as a potential threat then you direct most of your attention to those who are never going to attack us. Consequently, less time is spent focusing on those whose profiles indicate higher risk and a need for advanced screening.
Random screening not based on a risk assessment misdirects the screening process and adds to the indignity of travel. It takes time away from screening the guy who has been to Yemen twice and regularly chats with known terrorists. Passengers who suffer through the process of partially disrobing should be rewarded with a less invasive examination. After that Nashville trip, I met with Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Darrell Issa. Issa is chairman of the House committee that oversees the TSA, and he is known as a public servant unafraid to challenge regulatory overreach. Together, we coauthored an Air Travelers’ Bill of Rights to define and protect the dignity and privacy of air travelers.
Some days I fear that the regulators have won and the bullying bureaucrats already control our government. Yet after my ordeal with the TSA, members from both sides of the aisle came to me and said we must fix the TSA, that we must rein in the agency’s arrogance. But even in the face of significant and bipartisan support to put limits on the TSA’s power, the desired change remains elusive. The machinery of the bureaucracy, its inertness, its imponderable weight, has to date still defeated our best efforts of reform.
As you read these stories of everyday Americans bullied and badgered by their own government, I hope you get mad. More important, I hope you get inspired to channel your outrage into activism and involvement. In my first speech while I was still contemplating running for office, I repeated Sam Adams’s exhortation that it does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate and tireless minority keen to set brushfires in people’s minds.
This book speaks to that minority who’ve been victims of government abuse. It speaks to the irate and tireless, yet often powerless. It is meant to set brushfires in the minds of all Americans about what their government is really up to, whether behind their backs or in front of their faces.
Our Founders envisioned an America in which citizens would bully the government, not the other way around. This book is my effort to bring that America back.