Since oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico six weeks ago, government officials have cycled through a series of crisis-management messages. First they were monitoring BP's response, then working with BP, then keeping "a boot on the neck" of BP. Then they were distancing themselves from BP, refusing to share a podium with BP, and finally, this week, investigating BP.
Amid the evolving debate about government's role in the disaster cleanup — a debate that has drawn fine distinctions between who's "responsible," who's "accountable" and who's "in charge" — one thing officials haven't said is the uncomfortable truth: Americans don't actually want the kind of government that keeps on hand at all times billion-dollar deep-sea contingent equipment and the highly trained experts who know how to use it.
The government that could do what BP has thus far failed to is not the government most American taxpayers would honestly elect — and certainly not taxpayers in the small-government coastal red states now most affected by the spill.
BP has been unable to plug the leak through a month of increasingly ridiculous-sounding seat-of-the-pants maneuvers. Nobody in government has had any better ideas, largely because offshore oil-well-plugging is not government's job. When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar crowed that officials would push BP "out of the way" if it couldn't halt the spill, the government's lead man in the Gulf had to concede reality.
"To push BP out of the way would raise the question of 'replace them with what?'" said Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen.
So then what exactly is the feds' role, in this industrial disaster and others, if Uncle Sam can't actually roll up his sleeves and operate a lower marine riser package cap containment system?
Government is rightly responsible for what's now too late to correct in the Gulf — the front-end regulation of the drilling permits that were given to BP on the company's word alone that it was prepared for worst-case scenarios. The administration is responsible for setting up the independent commission that will investigate flawed government oversight, the April 20 rig explosion and BP's response.
Government is on the hook for coordinating the available resources of agencies like the Coast Guard with BP and ensuring that BP compensates local areas for damage. And if there were any crimes committed by BP — in violation of environmental statues, for instance — government is responsible for prosecuting that, too.
But beyond that?
"Just imagine what would have happened six months ago if the president had suggested a new agency that would be trained and funded to clean up disasters like this, granted the authority to take over an oil well at the first sign of trouble, and this agency would be funded by a large tax on oil companies," wrote University of North Dakota law professor Joshua Fershee on the Business Law Prof Blog. "You can be sure that the response would have been that the government shouldn't be in this business because the oil companies are better trained, better prepared and better able to respond to such problems."
Then imagine the infinite other highly technical low-probability contingencies for which government would have to bone up on behalf of private industry: coal-ash spills, mine collapses, chemical leaks, refinery explosions, factory fires, ship collisions.
A government that could clean up all that by itself would not only be unsustainably expansive and expensive — it would be subsidizing private industry and reducing the cost to companies of taking on risk.
That means if we want BP to clean up BP's mess, without the comfort of knowing a higher power can step in, and if we want a restrained government that monitors industry without acting like it, then we may have to accept the possibility of periodic events like this one.
Small-government Gulf state politicians, already on the defensive for decrying the failure of big-government response, can't say this.
And it's hard to imagine President Obama telling Americans this either — that outside of times of disaster, we haven't actually ordered up a government equipped to do what many are now asking.