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“An Indictment Of The ‘Pay-To-Play’ Political System”: Did the Chemical Industry Write Its Own Oversight Legislation?

For an instructive example of how unfettered money in politics corrupts the legislative process, consider a chemical-safety bill under deliberation in the Senate.

The legislation, sponsored by Louisiana Republican David Vitter and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, would reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which the chemical industry and environmental and public health advocates alike say is severely outdated. In the absence of solid federal protection from the roughly 1,000 chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency judges as potential health hazards, more than half the states have picked up the slack by putting their own regulations in place. The bill’s opponents warn it would undermine these state laws, without strengthening the EPA’s oversight powers enough to compensate. Unsurprisingly, the proposed overhaul has the “unequivocal support” of the chemical industry.

One of the bill’s chief critics is Barbara Boxer, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer, who has introduced a competing bill with stronger consumer protections, has been highly critical of the role chemical companies have played in the development of the Udall-Vitter legislation. “I’ve been around the Senate for a long time, but I have never before seen so much heavy-handed, big-spending lobbying on any issue,” Boxer was quoted saying in a New York Times article in early March. “To me it looks like the chemical industry itself is writing this bill.”

Boxer may have been right to question its authorship. Early in the week Hearst Newspapers got its hands on a draft version that was circulated by Udall’s office in anticipation of a committee hearing on Wednesday. Someone at Hearst checked the authoring information contained in the Word document—and found that it originated with the American Chemistry Council, the “leading trade organization and lobbyist for the chemical industry.”

Although Udall has a strong environmental record, he’s become cozy with ACC and other industry groups over the two years he’s spent working on the TSCA overhaul, as the same Times article revealed. He has raised “tens of thousands” of dollars from chemical interests, and the ACC even ran a television ad on his behalf. “The leadership he is providing is absolutely critical,” the group’s president and lobbyist Cal Dooley told the Times. Udall and the other sixteen cosponsors of his legislation received, on average, about 70 percent more from chemical companies than other senators.

Udall’s office and ACC insist the digital link between the document and the lobby group indicates only that after Udall’s office circulated the draft to stakeholders, someone at ACC saved a version and sent it back to the senator’s staff. But the Environmental Working Group, one of the bill’s chief opponents, and Boxer’s office told the SF Gate the draft version they received had the same authoring information.

Even if the bill didn’t fully originate with ACC, it’s clear that the chemical industry—which has a financial incentive to keep regulations loose—has left its mark on the Udall-Vitter legislation. The bill would bar states from regulating a chemical once the EPA designates it as “high priority” for assessment, a process that can take up to seven years. It requires the EPA to start reviewing a minimum of twenty-five chemicals within five years, but at that rate, it could be centuries before the agency got through the 1,000 chemicals it says need assessment. (To make matters worse, the underfunded EPA is known for missing deadlines.) To date the EPA has only ever banned five chemicals, and mandated testing on a mere 200 of the 80,000 in use in the United States.

Consumer advocates worry that if the bill passes, protections already in place would be completely undone while the EPA proceeds to examine only a small number of chemicals at a glacial pace. A number of organizations including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, United Steelworkers and the Breast Cancer Fund, along with eight state attorneys general, have pointed out these and other serious flaws. Some, like the Environmental Working Group, consider it worse than the existing regulatory framework; EWG says it “fail[s] to ensure that chemicals are safe, fail[s] to set meaningful deadlines for safety reviews, fail[s] to provide EPA with adequate resources and [denies] states the ability to protect public health and the environment.”

Nevertheless, in a sign of how broken the 1976 law is—the oft-repeated example is that it doesn’t even allow the EPA to ban asbestos—other health and environmental groups support the bill anyway. Anything stronger, they say, and it will lose Republican support, making it impossible to pass. “I don’t want to be facing another Senate committee twenty years from now, testifying about a sixty-year-old law. Nor do I want have to tell my daughter that she and her future children will not have a greater level of protection because we failed to pass a good, even if not perfect, law,” Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental health at George Washington University, testified before the Senate committee on Wednesday.

It may be true that a bill that truly protects consumers from harmful chemicals can’t pass Congress in its current form. But that’s a stone that shouldn’t be cast against advocates for something better than the Udall-Vitter compromise. It’s an indictment of the pay-to-play political system and the legislators who gamely reward their corporate sponsors.

 

By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, March 19, 2015

March 20, 2015 Posted by | Chemical Industry, Environmental Protection Agency | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Defeat For American Democracy”: The Senate Tried To Overturn ‘Citizens United’ Today. Guess What Stopped Them?

A majority of the United States Senate has voted to advance a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of Congress and the states to establish campaign fundraising and spending rules with an eye toward preventing billionaires and corporations from buying elections.

“Today was a historic day for campaign finance reform, with more than half of the Senate voting on a constitutional amendment to make it clear that the American people have the right to regulate campaign finance,” declared Senator Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat who in June proposed his amendment to address some of the worst results of the Supreme Court’s interventions in with the recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decisions, as well as the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that it’s going to take more than a majority to renew democracy.

Fifty-four senators, all Democrats and independents who caucus with the Democrats, voted Thursday for the amendment to clarify in the Constitution that Congress and the states have the authority to do what they did for a century before activist judges began intervening on behalf of wealthy donors and corporations: enact meaningful campaign finance rules and regulations.

But forty-two senators, all Republicans, voted no. As a result, Udall noted, the Republican minority was able to “filibuster this measure and instead choose to support a broken system that prioritizes corporations and billionaires over regular voters.”

The Republican opposition effectively blocked further consideration of the amendment proposal, since sixty votes were needed to end debate and force a vote. And, even if the Republicans had not filibustered the initiative, actual passage of an amendment would have required a two-thirds vote.

Though the Republican move was anticipated, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been one of the Senate’s most ardent advocates for reform, expressed frustration with the result. “I am extremely disappointed that not one Republican voted today to stop billionaires from buying elections and undermining American democracy,” said the senator, who has advocated for a more sweeping amendment to address the influence and power of corporate cash on American elections and governance. “While the Senate vote was a victory for Republicans, it was a defeat for American democracy. The Koch brothers and other billionaires should not be allowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars electing candidates who represent the wealthy and the powerful.“

Now, said Sanders, “the fight to overturn Citizens United must continue at the grassroots level in every state in this country.”

Sanders is right to reference the role of grassroots movements.

Four years ago, when the US Supreme Court removed barriers to corporate spending to buy elections, serious reformers said a constitutional amendment would be necessary to reverse the Court’s Citizens United ruling. Most pundits and politicians, even those who recognized the threat posed to democracy by the opening of the floodgates for big money, dismissed a constitutional fix as too bold and too difficult to achieve.

But the people embraced the constitutional route to reform. Grassroots organizing succeeded in getting sixteen states and close to 600 communities to formally demand that Congress act.

At the same time, the money poured in, with campaigning spending breaking records in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections—and heading toward breaking the record for midterm elections in 2014.

That was enough to shake up even the most cautious Senate Democrats, who began moving earlier this year to advance the Udall amendment. Though activists wanted a stronger amendment, the Senate deliberations confirmed that there is broad support for a constitutional response to the money-in-politics mess—and that a substantial number of senators now see that constitutional response as right and necessary.

“Less than five years after the Citizens United decision sparked national outrage, we have seen the movement to get big money out of politics go from local, grassroots organizing to a vote in the United States Senate,” explained People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker, who worked with activists from Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and other groups to collect and deliver 3.2 million signatures on petitions supporting an amendment. “Today’s historic majority vote is a remarkable milestone for this movement and a platform for taking the fight to the next level. The debate in the Senate this week is a debate that Americans across the country who are passionate about fixing our broken democracy have wanted to see.”

With the DC debate done, for now, the fight goes back to the grassroots. Activists with groups such as Move to Amend, Public Citizen’s “Democracy is for People” campaign and Free Speech for People will continue to organize and agitate, not just for an amendment but for an amendment that makes it absolutely clear that money is not speech, that corporations are not people and that citizens have a right to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.

“We have amended the US Constitution before in our nation’s history. Twenty-seven times before. Seven of those times to overturn egregious Supreme Court rulings. For the promise of American democracy, we can and we will do it again,” declared John Bonifaz, the president of Free Speech for People, said Thursday. “The pressing question before the nation today is whether it is ‘we the people’ or ‘we the corporations and big money interests.’ This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is a deeply American issue. Whatever our political differences may be, we all share the common vision of government of, for, and by the people. Today’s US Senate vote is just the beginning. While this amendment bill did not receive this time the required two-thirds support in order to pass the Senate, we will be back again and again until we win. History is on our side.’

 

By: John Nichols, The Nation, September 12, 2014

September 13, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Citizens United, Senate | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The War Against American Citizens”: Metastasizing Money Drowns Out The Voices Of Actual Americans

In 1971, before becoming a Supreme Court justice, Lewis F. Powell Jr. penned a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce advocating a comprehensive strategy in favor of corporate interests. Powell wrote, “Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.”

In last week’s ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission , the Supreme Court was not a mere instrument so much as a blowtorch, searing a hole in the fabric of our fragile democracy.

This predictable decision from the 1 Percent Court to repeal federal limits on overall individual campaign contributions overturns nearly 40 years of campaign finance law.

It also completes a trifecta of rulings that started in 1976 with Buckley v. Valeo, and the Midas touch of judicial malpractice, turning money into speech. As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in an impassioned dissent to McCutcheon, taken together with the 2010 ruling in Citizens United, “today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

This, foreshadowed in Powell’s decades-old memo, has always been the right’s plan — to shift the system in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Put it this way: If the limit hadn’t existed in 2012, the 1,219 biggest donors could have given more money than over 4 million small donors to the Obama and Romney campaigns — combined.

But McCutcheon was not the only body blow to our democracy, in what was possibly the worst week in the history of campaign finance reform.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) let his proposal for publicly financed statewide elections die after years of promises to restore the public trust. In a state that’s often a laboratory of democracy, the governor has agreed to what is little more than a clinical trial — a single comptroller’s race this year — that some experts claim is “designed to fail.”

The American experiment seems to be run by a smaller and smaller control group as billionaires — like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson — get expanding seats at the shrinking political table.

NASCAR drivers wear the corporate logos of their sponsors on their suits. The justices who sided with plutocracy ought to wear sponsorship logos on their robes, too.

Conversations about court rulings and policy proposals can obscure what’s really at stake: the well-being of the American people. The Court and Cuomo gave the 1 percent even more opportunities to, effectively, buy the kind of access to elected officials that most voters and small donors could never dream of. The weakening of campaign finance laws tracks with the widening income gap, as the wealthiest have secured policies, from lower taxes to deregulation — that enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else.

This, to paraphrase Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D), is why the system is rigged. Metastasizing money drowns out the voices of actual Americans, and suffocates policies such as raising the minimum wage and equal pay that would benefit workers. It also skews the playing field, not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between male and female candidates.

We live in a world where elected officials care less about checks and balances and more about their checkbooks and balance sheets. Where fundraising is more important than legislating. Where public policy is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

That’s why getting money out of politics is not a partisan issue. According to Gallup, nearly eight out of 10 Americans think campaigns should be limited in what they can raise and spend, while a 2012 CBS poll shows that about two-thirds of Americans believe in limiting individual campaign contributions.

Hopefully, popular outrage will boost the pressure for reform; there has already been a sharp increase in grassroots action. In the hours and days after the ruling, coalitions such as Public Citizen have mobilized thousands of people in 140 demonstrations across 38 states to protest the McCutcheon ruling. Nearly 500 local governments and 16 states and the District have called for a constitutional amendment to wrest our elections back from the elite. Move to Amend, which supports a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and McCutcheon, and end the fiction that corporations are people and money equals speech, already has over 300,000 members.

A resolution from Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) — with a House companion introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) — calling for a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to fully regulate campaign contributions, and to encourage states to regulate and limit campaign spending, already had 29 co-sponsors and picked up 3 more on the day the Roberts Court announced its decision. Citizens in New York, who are furious at Cuomo for failing to enact reform, are renewing the drive to hold him accountable for his actions. And even while pushing for a constitutional amendment — an uphill battle —supporters of clean elections in Congress and outside are fighting for increased disclosure and public financing of elections.

The all-out assault against campaign finance reform, on the heels of the Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder , is just one more example of our democratic system in crisis. “Under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts,” my Nation colleague Ari Berman recently wrote, “the Supreme Court has made it far easier to buy an election and far harder to vote in one.” But the fear of democracy’s premature death doesn’t look like it’s silencing people; instead, it is inspiring a renewed commitment to fight for its survival.

 

By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 8, 2014

April 9, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Democracy, SCOTUS | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

   

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