Several years ago, towards the end of the Bush/Cheney era, historian Rick Perlstein coined a powerful phrase: “E. coli conservatism.” The slogan coincided with a rash of food-safety controversies – tomatoes with salmonella, spinach with E. coli – resulting from lax governmental regulations.
Perlstein’s refrain, of course, was intended to convey a larger policy point: when government pulls back on safeguards intended to protect the public, there are often hazardous consequences. (Rachel had a great segment on this several years ago, highlighting congressional Republican efforts to eliminate funding entirely on an E. coli screening program.)
All of which leads us to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who argued this week that under his vision of “regulatory reform,” he’d allow coffee shops, for example, to scrap requirements that employees must wash their hands after going to the bathroom.
Andrew Rosenthal noted, “It is often hard to tell whether Republican legislators are joking, because so many of the things they say are unintentionally funny. So I don’t know whether Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, was trying to be a latter day Jonathan Swift or was perfectly serious when he said restaurants are over-regulated and should not be required to tell employees to wash their hands after using the toilet.”
The good news is, Tillis suggested yesterday he was kidding. The bad news is, the far-right senator then repeated his entire argument to an AP reporter in such a way as to make clear he wasn’t kidding.
Tillis defended his point in an interview Tuesday in the Capitol.“Sometimes there are regulations that maybe we want to set a direction, but then let those who are regulated decide whether or not it makes sense,” he said. They might pay a huge price, he said, but “they get to make that decision versus government.”
Welcome back, E. coli conservatism. It’s as if you never really went away at all.
It’s important to emphasize that, under the Republican senator’s vision, public-sector regulations would not require a restaurant to mandate post-bathroom hand-washing, but public-sector regulations would require establishments to “post a sign” letting consumers know about the restaurant’s hygiene policy.
In other words, Tillis is on board with trading one regulation for another.
The point here isn’t to ridicule a U.S. senator’s strange ideology, but rather, what’s important is understanding the larger policy debate. Thom Tillis wasn’t just making an odd observation about personal cleanness; he was describing a commitment to “regulatory reform.”
For many Americans, I imagine the phrase “federal regulations” sound onerous and ominous – an inflexible bureaucracy imposes impractical rules that get in everyone’s way. Republicans decry “regulations” on a daily basis, without getting too specific, in the hopes of persuading Americans that they should vote for the GOP in order to eliminate these burdensome guidelines and omnipresent instructions.
But in practice, what Republicans are often referring to are safeguards put in place to ensure the food you and your family are eating is safe. Tillis’ remarks, to this extent, were incredibly helpful in crystallizing exactly what this debate is all about.