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Oh, those elusive regulators

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At first I got ticked off. Then I understood the federal agency's stance. Finally, I just became frustrated and nostalgic.

A couple of months ago I assigned to Miles Moore, our Washington reporter, a story that I thought would be interesting: Go talk to the regulators, the actual people who create the rules at agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and others that affect the rubber industry.

I know regulations don't just pop out of thin air: Actual people in government create them, and I wanted us to talk to these people, find out who they are, how they function, how decisions are made. I already had an idea of how business interacts with regulatory agencies. Let's talk to the government people behind the rulemaking.

We got nowhere.

The closest our reporter came to interviewing a government regulator was a polite but firm thanks for go away, from a spokeswoman at NHTSA.

I brought this up with a rubber industry trade association official, someone who had been involved intimately in regulatory affairs for rubber-related chemicals. In fact, his organization, with him as the point man, helped fashion an important standard a number of years ago that remains in effect today.

To start with, he told me the association, together with the union representing workers who dealt with the chemicals—worked together with people at the staff level at the agency, rather than the powers that be, who were likely to be political appointees.

The staff people primarily were engineers, and they weren't experts on rubber. So the industry group—the trade association and union people—had to educate the government employees about the chemical in question.

The hard part, he said, was that the government engineers move around quite a bit. They'd brought an engineer up to snuff on the science and use of the chemical, and then the government worker would be shifted elsewhere, and they had to start the process all over again with a new person.

That's one of the reasons it takes so long for the regulatory process to get done. Another, of course, is that there just aren't as many people working in federal agencies as in the past.

Since President Barack Obama was elected, for example, public sector employment has fallen by more than 600,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This situation is all very different from days past when it came to reporting on regulatory affairs.

Uniform Tire Quality Grading was a real hot-button item way back in 1966 and for many years. Cecil Brenner, the NHTSA official who personally devised the system, didn't hide behind any spokesman. I'd see him now and then at tire and rubber industry events, and he was quite accessible to our Washington reporters.

Mr. Brenner, who died in 1998, was always outspoken—a joy for a journalist—and in the 1990s called for the abolition of his brainchild. He said it had outlived its usefulness.

They apparently don't make them like Mr. Brenner anymore.

Ed Noga is the editor of Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based companion publication of Tire Business that recently published this column.
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