- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) thinks outside the tank. When stories of impending ecological doom infiltrate the press, CEI scholars go to work to review the science and debunk what they see as environmental myths.

The organization mixes free-market ideas with the antiregulation and environmental movements, but unlike most institutes that are content just to think and speak, the CEI does not shy away from forcing action through the courts or the legislative process.

The institute started in the kitchen of Fred Smith Jr. 20 years ago as a “champion for individual economic liberty” and will celebrate its anniversary tomorrow with a dinner at the Capital Hilton.

“I thought there was a niche that had not been exploited,” Mr. Smith said of his two-decade commitment to the cause.

CEI has tackled tough and contentious scientific issues such as global warming, carbon dioxide and fuel-economy standards, most recently expanding into the politics of food. It has become the go-to think tank in the fight against excessive federal government regulations, supporters say.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said that without CEI, Washington would not have a regulatory reform movement.

“No organization provides more timely and hard-hitting information about the excesses and abuses of the federal leviathan,” Mr. DeLay said. “A lot of the ideas behind the House’s agenda to cut regulatory red tape and improve the competitiveness of the American economy got their start at CEI.”

Michelle Malkin, syndicated columnist, author and the institute’s 1995 Warren T. Brookes journalism fellow, said the CEI has never been a typical Washington think tank, but a “do tank.”

“Tireless CEI researchers have waged hand-to-hand combat in the war on ‘big government’ for two decades — on Capitol Hill, on ‘Crossfire’ and in the courtroom,” she said. “Fred Smith’s boundless intellectual energy could power New York City.”

Not content to pontificate in lecture halls, CEI goes a step further and takes its case to the courtroom.

“They can ignore ideas, but they can’t ignore a lawsuit,” Mr. Smith said. “Sometimes we have to hit them over the head with a two-by-four. It may not move them in the right direction, but it sure does get their attention.”

In 1992, the CEI challenged the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which were conceived after the 1970s oil crisis. The case revealed that thousands of additional highway fatalities were occurring each year in the newly designed lighter and smaller cars that were manufactured under pressure from government regulations.

“It was death by regulation,” Mr. Smith said. “Regulation policy is not just about money, but has consequences to life.

“Regulators all want to pretend to wear white hats, but it is a deeply villainous structure,” he added. “People are beginning to be aware that government may not be the best way to protect our climate.”

Liberals routinely portray CEI as a front for corporate interests.

“Right-wingers in LaLa Land,” the Democrats.com Web site called the institute in February, dubbing CEI “a front group that supports Bush and his agenda.”

Two years ago, the environmental group Friends of the Earth labeled CEI “far right-wing lobbyists … who have received substantial funding from corporations such as ExxonMobil.”

CEI’s supporters see the institute as scrappy underdogs battling Beltway giants.

“Smith and CEI have truly been the Davids of Washington, standing up to and overcoming the professional health nannies and powerful Goliaths of the environmental movement,” said Herb Berkowitz, who was vice president of communications for the Heritage Foundation for 25 years.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee, said CEI is adept at cutting through bureaucratic nonsense and explaining science in clear terms.

“Many of today’s so-called environmental groups have financial and political interests in distorting the true state of our environment. For them, the better the scare, the bigger the payday,” Mr. Pombo said.

“It seems telling the truth about the environment today would make their capital campaigns about as lucrative as panhandling. That’s why CEI is so critical to the national debate on these issues. This is the kind of prescription Americans deserve as we address the environmental needs of today, and they would be better served if the nonsense was cut out completely,” Mr. Pombo said.

The institute took a risk by siding with the tobacco industry in 1995, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) attempted to regulate the plant as an addictive substance that was advertised to young people.

Under that criteria alone, CEI argued, the government could regulate numerous substances and products, including Pepsi, cocoa and coffee, all of which contain caffeine.

“At one event, [general counsel] Sam Kazman held up an innocent pair of tennis shoes that would be to the ever-vigilant FDA an endorphin delivery system,” Mr. Smith said. “It got very good publicity, but the good people in the caffeine industry got a little upset with us.

“What we want to explain is that when a particular industry is picked on, it’s not just that product but a precedent is set. They always pick on a demon product such as tobacco and alcohol just to expand government control, then pretty soon, everything is classified as sinful. But a line had to be drawn, and we were able to defend economic liberty,” he said.

That battle was won, but the FDA again is looking at tobacco and caffeine as addictive substances to regulate.

An adjunct fellow recently took on the food police when she decided to eat an all-McDonald’s menu and lose weight by counting calories. For 30 days, Soso Whaley lived on a daily 1,800-calorie count eating fish sandwiches, salads, yogurt and even the egg, bacon and cheese McGriddles.

She kept a daily “debunk the junk” diary, and in her final entry on day 30 wrote: “That’s it, no vomiting in the parking lot, no splotchy face, no problem with my libido, 10 pounds lost and cholesterol down from 237 to 197.”

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