deepwaterThe Deepwater Horizons rig goes boom, killing 11 people and starting a massive and ongoing oil leak. If the Minerals Management Service had been a functional, independent oversight agency, this disaster would likely have never happened.  (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Has the government surrendered its ability to rein in corporate excess? Yes, says the New York Times:

The federal Minerals Management Service gave permission to BP and dozens of other oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico without first getting required permits from another agency that assesses threats to endangered species — and despite strong warnings from that agency about the impact the drilling was likely to have on the gulf.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Those approvals, federal records show, include one for the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig, which exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers and resulting in thousands of barrels of oil spilling into the gulf each day.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Minerals Management Service, or M.M.S., also routinely overruled its staff biologists and engineers who raised concerns about the safety and the environmental impact of certain drilling proposals in the gulf and in Alaska, according to a half-dozen current and former agency scientists.

Read the whole depressing exposé and learn how the Minerals Management Service, like so many other government agencies, has over over the years transformed into a division of the corporations it was meant to regulate.

Yes, Obama can clean this stuff up to some extent — at least until the next GOP administration arrives, when our government will revert to the crony capitalism that has become a virtual plank in the Republican platform.

So, I have to ask: Where is the countervailing force against corporate influence ultimately going to come from? Right now, there isn’t any. In most industrialized countries organized labor provides it, either through so-called tripartite bargaining, in which labor, management, and government sit down and hammer out agreements, or simply through the very existence of powerful labor unions that represent majorities of citizens.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

We don’t have that, and it’s likely that a majority of Americans wouldn’t want such a system anyway. But what’s the alternative? I don’t think there is one. We complain about corporations running rampant in this country, which they are. But they’re also well-organized, well-funded, and well-represented in the back rooms as well as the official chambers of government. Without labor providing a counterweight — or to switch metaphors, the third leg of the stool — we will continue to get regulatory disasters like the MMS. Swapping out representatives and senators (and even presidents) won’t change the power structures in which they operate. Better behavior from politicians just isn’t going to be enough.

What, I wonder, is a nation of free agents to do? Maybe Lawrence Lessig is right and it really is time for a constitutional convention. It’s that or just keep hoping, I guess.