The Industry Assault on Public Health

November 15, 2011 - 12:55pm

By Donald Cohen

GOP members of the House and Senate have proposed a flurry of bills that would roll-back, and in some cases effectively repeal, some of the nation’s most important environmental, health and safety laws.

They are wrapping their proposals in anti-government rhetoric to avoid saying they want more polluted air, dangerous food or unsafe workplaces.  But the proposed bills are, in fact, complex, bureaucratic and lobbyist-friendly schemes that mask an assault on public health and safety.

Business lobbies have been waging a decade’s long campaign to thwart popular protections like the Clean Air Act, food safety laws, and automobile safety standards.  They’ve been able to add new obscure bureaucratic administrative processes to implement laws that most Americans don’t see nor understand.  Lobbyists and lawyers have the advantage in this regulatory arena. 

As a result, life-saving regulations must go through years of hurdles just to make into law.  

For example, in 1977 the federal government banned TRIS, the carcinogenic chemical added to children’s pajamas, many years after the hazards were well known.  Long delays allowed toxic substances such as lead in gasoline, DDT, asbestos, vinyl chloride and phthalates (a toxic chemical found in children’s toys) to stay on the market and lives were lost.    Standard car safety features such as laminated windshields, and air bags were repeatedly delayed.    Today, we take all of these protections for granted but many, or perhaps all, of these would never have happened had the current proposals been law.  Industry opposed each and every one. 

Today industry has a long wish list of safeguards they hope won’t happen. For example, they want to stop the EPA from adopting Clean Air Act rules to reduce the toxic and cancer causing pollutants. And they want to stop OSHA from adopting rules that would protect workers from explosions caused by combustible dust in the workplace. 

Most Americans think that when we pass a law like the Clean Air Act, that a law-abiding nation will start following the new rules to clean our polluted air.  Not so. Once the law passes, industry opponents move to the next battleground and hold up the law’s implementation. The process is complicated, bureaucratic and rigged for industries that can afford armies of lobbyists.  

The new GOP proposals would make the rule-making process even more tortured and complex. They would be able to kill legislation after it is signed into law by gumming up the administrative works. It would look like the regulatory equivalent of “extraordinary rendition” – whisking away a popular law in the dark of night.    And it has the added benefit for anti-government zealots of further discrediting government in the eyes of ordinary people.  Washington can’t get anything done, so why bother trying. 

There are many proposals, but the bills that have the most momentum are the benign sounding Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) and Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS.) 

REINS would automatically halt any rule (implementing an existing law) that isn’t approved by Congress within 70 days.  Opponents wouldn’t have to cast a politically unpopular public vote to repeal the Clean Air Act.  They just have to sit on their hands to allow toxic mercury emissions to continue to pollute our communities.  It’s the legislative equivalent of the “perfect crime.”  The deed is done, but lacking witnesses to public statements or actions, no one can be found guilty. 

The Regulatory Accountability Act is would add more steps to an already burdensome process and give industry lobbyists even more power to challenge new rules while limiting citizens’ rights to do so.  It’s a frontal assault on democracy.   Reducing toxic emissions, improving industrial workplace hazards, or eliminating poisons from our food supply would be bogged down, and likely drowned, in years of hearings, administrative and legal challenges, and special interest lobbying. 

Oil, coal, food, finance, and other industry lobbies will be able to thwart any rules that get in their way – regardless of the impact on our air, water, workplaces and lives.  The proposed bills might as well be called the “Laws Industry Doesn’t Like Won’t Happen Act. “ (LIDLWHA).  And since, they don’t like a lot of laws already on the books; it could also be called the “Back Door Repeal Act.” (BDRA) 

We get a glimpse from industry’s real agenda looking at the early 1980’s, when the Chamber of Commerce and their supporters in the White House launched a deadly assault on health and safety protections.

Industry lobbied the Reagan administration to delay rules requiring air bags, warning labels on tampons about Toxic Shock Syndrome and warning labels about the link between aspirin and Reyes syndrome. They delayed banning carcinogenic food coloring and asbestos in workplaces and schools.

The dangers in every one of these cases were well-known.  The technology was available.  But industry claimed they would kill jobs and that they were examples of big government infringements on liberty and free enterprise.   Fortunately, aggressive congressional leadership and court action pushed back against industry’s assault on common sense health, safety and environmental protections.   Ultimately, they were only able to delay but not stop many of these protections from becoming law.

The costs of the delays were real, avoidable and should have been unacceptable.  Thousands of deaths and millions of injuries from unsafe cars and toxic substances could have been avoided.

For decades, industry lobbies have honed their rhetoric and developed new ways to block life and earth saving protections that would benefit us all.   The Occupy Movement has showed the country that Americans want government to act on behalf of us all.   Congress and the Obama administration have a chance to put our health, our safety and our planet first by rejecting these schemes.

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