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Senate Joint Committee Hearing Dedicated to Attacking Public Servants

When your public approval rating has hovered at or below 20 percent for the last several years, maybe the last thing you should be doing is maligning other government institutions.   That didn’t stop a group of Senators from spending several hours doing just that today during a joint hearing involving the Senate Budget and Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committees.  The joint hearing was nominally about a nonsense regulatory reform proposal called “regulatory budgeting” (for more on that, see here), but it quickly devolved into a no-holds-barred hate session directed at federal agency employees, as the upright and honorable members of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” repeatedly attacked the prevailing “culture” at agencies.

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An Unconstitutional Attempt to Roll-back Public Health Protections

Senator Rounds (SD-R) has introduced a proposed concurrent resolution to establish a Joint Select Committee on Regulatory Reform to address the alleged “regulatory overreach that is so prevalent in all sectors of the U.S. economy” by, among other things, conducting a “systematic review” of all rules adopted by federal agencies, supposedly in the name of reducing government expenditure and streamlining business procedures.  Ironically, Congress, if it wishes, can spend its otherwise valuable time having a committee engage in this procedure, while at the same time increasing the costs of government by requiring government agencies to appear at hearings and respond to subpoenas to answer once again why they are doing what members of Congress have by statute told them to do, in order to protect the public health, safety and environment of their constituents. This is political theater, no more, no less.

The other provisions in the resolution raise serious potential questions and thus require a closer look.  To begin with, the proposed concurrent resolution would also have the special committee analyze the feasibility of creating a Permanent Joint Committee on Rules Review with powers that would undoubtedly violate the Constitution, as explained below. The proposed resolution suggests that the permanent committee would require agencies to submit to the committee any proposed rule having an economic impact of $50 million or more along with an economic analysis of the rule.  This, by itself, raises no constitutional problem; what follows does.  

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Remember the Gulf Walrus! One Big Lesson from the BP Oil Spill

Nearly five years ago, BP introduced a flippered mammal Americans never knew we had: the Gulf Walrus! If you don’t know the story, you should, because the tale of the Gulf Walrus tells you everything you need to know about what was wrong with deepwater drilling back in 2010, and worse, still is. 

The story goes like this: After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, leaving 11 workers dead and a gusher of oil billowing a mile under the sea, a watchdog group called the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility unearthed the regional oil spill response plan BP had submitted to the Department of Interior as part of the process to begin drilling. The document was riddled with omissions, errors, and implausible assumptions. There was no plan for a failed “blowout preventer,” no plan for oil reaching the coast, no plan for oil-soaked turtles and birds.  But, BP’s regional plan did pay lip service to such “Sensitive Biological Resources” as “Sea Lions, Seals, Sea Otters [and] Walruses.” The media howled. Congressional hearings were held. And in New Orleans, “Save the Gulf Walrus” t-shirts sold like fried oysters. What had happened, it turned out, was that BP had been so eager to gets its rig in the water, that it had cribbed from an earlier plan intended for Arctic drilling. No one had bothered to change the details, and the Department of Interior was happy to give its rubber stamp of approval. And thus an imaginary, large-flippered, sea mammal was born.

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CPR President Rena Steinzor in the Houston Chronicle: Criminal investigations crucial to making refineries safer

Last Friday marked the 10 year anniversary of the BP Texas City Refinery explosion that killed 15 people and injured 170 others.

In an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle, CPR President Rena Steinzor describes the systemic failures which led to the explosion and the regulatory gaps that remain. She calls for criminal investigations, "everytime refinery operations kill, maim, or threaten public health."

She notes:

BP executive Ross Pillari blamed low-level workers for not "doing their jobs." Yet some of the men stationed at the tower had worked 12-hour shifts for 29 consecutive days, as required by BP policy. The company fired six of them, in effect reinforcing the perception that human error, as opposed to systemic mismanagement, was to blame. This spin was refuted by the evidence.

Several weeks before the explosion, Texas City plant manager Don Parus prepared a PowerPoint containing pictures of men killed in accidents on site and showed it to BP senior executives John Manzoni and Michael Hoffman. Parus had also commissioned a consulting firm to survey employees about safety. It reported that "[w]e have never seen a site where the notion, 'I could die today,' was so real."

Post-explosion reports by the Baker panel, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an internal BP review team, and investigative reporting by ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, ratified these fears.

To read the full piece, click here.

 

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CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin Testifies on Regulation for the House Committee on Small Business

Today, CPR Senior Policy Analyst James Goodwin will testify as an expert witness on the regulatory process for a House Committee on Small Business Hearing, "Tangled in Red Tape: New Challenges for Small Manufacturers.

Goodwin's testimony highlights the economic as well as public health and safety benefits of regulations in relation to small businesses. He notes:

Over the past four decades, U.S. regulatory agencies have achieved remarkable success in establishing safeguards that protect people and the environment against unreasonable risks. During the 1960s and 1970s, rivers caught fire, cars exploded on rear impact, workers breathing benzene contracted liver cancer, and chemical haze settled over the industrial zones of the nation's cities and towns. But today, the most visible manifestations of these threats are under control, millions of people have been protected from death and debilitating injury, and environmental degradation has been slowed and even reversed in some cases.

In short, the United States is much better off because of the regulations adopted over the past 40 years. But serious hazards remain, and indeed new ones continue to emerge as new technologies develop and the U.S. economy evolves. Americans would be even better protected if the gaps that leave them and their environment vulnerable to unnecessary risks were closed. To gauge the positive impact of regulation on Americans’ lives, consider:

  • The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates that regulatory benefits exceed regulatory costs by about 8 to 1 for significant regulations.
     
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the regulatory benefit of the Clean Air Act exceeds its costs by a 25-to-1 ratio.

The failure to regulate some hazards related to the workplace, the environment, product safety, food safety, and more, and the failure to enforce existing regulations on such hazards results in thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of injuries, and billions of dollars in economic damages every year. Sometimes, the damages are spectacular on a world-wide scale.

The BP Oil Spill caused tens of billions of dollars in damages.3 The Wall Street collapse may have caused trillions. Regulation to prevent catastrophe can be far cheaper, and less painful, than cleaning up damage to lives, property, and the environment later.

To read his full testimony click here.

 

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Obama’s Path to Progress: Will the White House Compel Rich Utilities to Clean Up Giant Coal Ash Pits?

We’ll soon learn the results of White House deliberations over EPA’s long-delayed coal ash rule, one of the Essential 13 regulatory initiatives we’ve called upon President Barack Obama to complete before he leaves office.  Under the terms of a consent decree, EPA is required to issue its new rule by Friday, December 19. As glad as we are to see this phase of the rule’s tortuous odyssey come to a close, we suspect that court, not a victory party, will be the public interest community’s next stop, despite a late-entry exposé aired by 60 Minutes last week. 

In the universe of self-inflicted environmental wounds over the last two decades, any “10 best” list must include the brilliant decision to make operators of coal-fired power plants scrub smokestacks to keep mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead particles out of the air but neglecting to prevent them from picking the bad stuff up off the grate, carting it a short distance, and dumping it into giant pits in the ground.  Utilities generate an astounding 100 million tons of such inky sludge annually.  But because the federal government has never issued minimum requirements for such dumps, and state laws are rarely adequate, these pits have been left to grow wider, deeper, and taller, contaminating drinking water and threatening catastrophic spills.  

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Support CPR this Giving Tuesday

This Giving Tuesday, I hope you'll consider donating to the Center for Progressive Reform. We've had a banner year and are looking forward to many great things in 2015.

Above all, CPR's staff and Member Scholars promote a positive and progressive vision for environmental policy and workers' rights. We need your support to continue that work.

Two days after the midterm elections, we released "Barack Obama's Path to Progress," an Issue Alert laying out an affirmative and politically realistic vision for real progress over the next two years. The Alert identifies 13 essential regulatory actions that the President can and should finish before he leaves office, steps that allow him to save thousands of lives, lock in significant environmental gains, and leave a solid legacy on the regulatory front. Importantly, finalizing these rules is entirely within the province of the Executive Branch, so obstructionism aside, he can get this done.

I hope you've seen the wonderful infographics and blog posts that staff have put together to accompany the Alert. We'll continue to provide regular updates on the Obama Administration's progress on the "Essential 13," and we'll also work with our allies to press the administration into action.

This year we also put forward a positive vision for reforms to state and local laws that would better protect workers' health and safety. Our "Winning Safer Workplaces" manual was a big hit with our allies, and now we're working to help turn the ideas from the manual into reality.

Developing these forward-thinking products is no easy task, but our staff and Member Scholars get them done and still find the time to coordinate advocacy with allies, host webinars, meet with decisionmakers to promote our ideas, write case briefs, and blog with thoughtful and incisive commentary on the latest developments in regulation, environmental policy, and workers' rights.

Your support will help us to continue this great work in 2015. I hope you'll make a donation.

Thanks very much for your support.

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Why I Wrote This Book: Why Not Jail?

I have spent 38 years in Washington, D.C. as a close observer of the regulatory system, specifically the government’s efforts to protect public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment. The system’s a mess. Regulatory failure has become so acute that we truly are frozen in a paradox. On one hand, people expect the government to ensure that air and water are clean, workers don’t die on the job for avoidable reasons, food is safe, and drugs are efficacious. On the other, these expectations are trashed with alarming frequency. I wrote this book because I have lost near-term hope of reviving the agencies assigned these crucial tasks in a globalized economy. Instead, I argue that the most viable way to staunch the bleeding is to mount an aggressive, relentless effort to prosecute corporate managers for preventable accidents that take lives, inflict grave injury, and squander irreplaceable natural resources.

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The Real Price of Chicken Nuggets: Obama Administration Turns Its Back on Poultry Processing Workers; Crippled (Literally) by a Thousand Cuts

Only in Washington, D.C. is nothing portrayed as something.  Out in the nation, not so much.  And so it was late last week that the Obama Administration took a victory lap for not making life even more miserable for some of the most abused workers in America. Yup, despite the best efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is supposed to watch out for workers’ well-being, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the life-long booster for corporate agriculture, gave a swift kick in the pants to all those low-wage people of color who make the chicken nuggets and chick filets that now dominate what’s for dinner. 

Up until last Thursday, USDA was claiming loudly to anyone who would listen that it doesn’t “do” worker protection.  Then the agency did a full 180 in the middle of the road, and now claims it has addressed workers’ concerns with the help of its new best friends at OSHA. Those workers are the folks who toil at workplaces so miserable that many states make it a crime to film inside them. 

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CPR's Verchick in Times-Picayune: Governor Jindal, don't sign away our legal claims against BP

Today, Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholar Robert Verchick published an op-ed in New Orleans' Times-Picayune entitled, "Gov. Jindal, don't sign away our legal claims against BP."

The piece notes:

Governor Jindal will probably sign SB469, a bill designed to neutralize the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East's lawsuit against oil and gas companies. But does our governor realize that, if he signs this bill, he may also be killing scores of claims that his own his own state and associated local governments have brought against  BP for the Macondo oil spill?                                                                                       

For, whatever the governor or state lawmakers may believe, that is precisely what SB469 might do.

SB469 clearly lists not only who can bring claims in Louisiana's coastal zone, but what kind of claims they can bring. Notably missing from its list are claims for economic losses and claims for natural resource damages under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) – the very basis for pending claims against BP. 

It continues:

But the state, as well as several parishes, have already brought economic claims under OPA...So have coastal cities...And fire districts...And airports...And school districts...And SLFPAE itself, which presented a claim against BP for more than $79 million, mostly to recover tax revenues it lost because of the oil spill.

These OPA claims are not frivolous or opportunistic. Indeed, Governor Jindal has said for months that one of the reasons he opposed the SLFPAE lawsuit is that he thought it threatened state and local governments’ OPA claims against BP. communities that are bringing these claims were hit hard by the Macondo oil spill. They're trying to recover just some of what they lost.  

For example, in its OPA suit against BP, Jefferson Parish has alleged that it suffered:

1.Ecological damage

2.Damage to the quality of life of its citizens

3.Loss of sales tax revenues, use tax revenues, Parish tax revenues, inventory tax revenues, hotel and motel tax revenues, reverence tax revenues, royalties, rents and fees

4.Increased costs of providing services to the citizens of the Parish of Jefferson

5.Damage to the natural resources of the Parish of Jefferson

6.Increased costs for the monitoring of the health of its citizens and the treatment of physical and emotional problems related to the oil spill

7.Costs for educating and retraining employees

8.Increased promotional costs

9.Increased costs to borrow money

10.Increased costs for debt service

11.Loss of fees for permits and licenses

12.Loss of fines and forfeitures income

13.Increased administrative costs

14.Damages to the reputation and image of claimants in the business and tourism communities

Because SB469 works retroactively, it could undo all of these claims.  Did Governor Jindal know that, when he pushed SB469 in the legislature?

To read the entire piece click here.

Professor Verchick also drafted a memo with fellow CPR Member Scholars and law professors Christine Klein and William Andreen on the consequences of SB469's passage and they urge the Louisiana legislature to vote against the bill.

To read the memo click here.

June 3 update, Jindal Blinks: According to a June 3 story in the Baton Rouge Advocate, Governor Jindal backed off of plans to sign the bill at a news conference called for the purpose:

Jindal had planned to sign SB469 at a news conference Monday afternoon, but he left the bill untouched after Attorney General Buddy Caldwell asked for time to look into a claim it could be used by lawyers for BP to scuttle suits brought for economic damages during the 2010 oil spill. That claim, put forward by law professors, first arose over the weekend.

“We’re not signing the bill today,” Jindal said Monday. “The attorney general asked for some additional time to look at it, and out of an abundance of caution, we’ll give the attorney general time to do that,” he said.

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