Regulating Corporate Behavior

Jul 31, 2013

Is Congress doing it's job? Most of us would agree that the answer is no – Congress's approval ratings are at an all time low for good reason. But that doesn't mean they aren't busy.

The House will be voting on 10 bills this week to highlight their headline grabber “Stop Government Abuse Week.” Now, if the name makes you think this might be a renewed effort to rein in the NSA's surveillance program, you'd be wrong. Maybe the name conjures up hope that Congress is looking at how to rein in the TSA before every air traveler is irradiated, no such luck.

No, the House isn't looking for ways to protect you and your constitutional rights, it's trying to further limit the government’s ability to protect you from corporate wrongdoing. Many regulations that protect the public are already too weak and people die as a result, weakening regulations means more people would die. The main bill is the perversely named "Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2013," or REINS Act (H.R. 367).

The Coalition for Sensible Safeguards says: “This bill represents the most radical threat to our government’s ability to protect the public from harm in generations. The bill will delay or shut down the implementation of critical new public health and safety protections, thereby making industry even less accountable to the public. It will only benefit those corporations that wish to game the system and evade safety standards while doing nothing to protect the American public.”

The Coalition concludes that, “Simply put, the REINS Act would make the dysfunction and obstructionism that plagues our political process even worse by giving one chamber of Congress veto power over any new significant public health and safety protection, no matter how noncontroversial or commonsense it may be. Congress should be searching for ways to ensure federal agencies enforce laws designed to protect our food supply, water, air quality, financial security and much more, not throwing up roadblocks to sensible safeguards that protect the American people.”

Good thing we have the Seventh Amendment to assert our rights and seek compensation if coporate actions harm us or our families. Ooops, as usual that right is also under attack. The House Judiciary Committee, is considering the “Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act.” A more apt name would be the Seventh Amendment Limiting Act, or the Corporate Malfeasance Protection Act. Some consumer groups charge the bill will “burden an understaffed judiciary, prolong expensive litigation and unfairly penalize consumers and employees as participants in civil lawsuits” as well as “have a discriminatory impact on civil rights, employment, environmental and consumer cases.”

For now, these House bills are just for show, a sop to the House's corporate benefactors that the Senate will likely not approve. But, then who knows what the Senate might do.

The Senate is having a hearing tomorrow on a new bi-partisan bill on toxic chemicals. The bill would strengthen some federal regulation of chemicals, sounds good. Unfortunately, the bill would also wipe out all state regulation dealing with toxic chemicals, and limit or prohibit state lawsuits by people harmed by toxic chemicals. Hmm, get a little more federal regulation, regulation that is always subject to rollback or repeal by Congress, and lose states' rights to their own regulations, and take away citizens rights to hold corprations accountable in court for the harms they cause? Doesn't sound too good for we the people.

What's at risk? In California, laws that try to protect consumers from the most toxic materials. California Attorney General Kamala Harris says her office has concluded that the measure would imperil Proposition 65, which voters enacted in 1986 to limit contamination of groundwater and make businesses disclose when consumers are exposed to carcinogens.

Here in Montana, our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment would be subservient to the new federal regulations. Montana laws that protect our air and water could be prempted by new federal regulations. Montanans' right to hold corporations accountable in our state courts for the harms they cause to people and property could be denied.

Of course, corporate makers and distributors of toxic chemicals would gladly comply with tighter federal regulations, right? Well, regulation is always subject to rollback or repeal in Congress – exactly what the House is trying to do this week. More federal regulation of toxic chemicals, coupled with less or no state regulation, and less or no access to state courts, that prospect doesn't make me feel safer.

So what happens when an industry is loosely regulated, as the House wants? Tonight on Montana PBS at 9:00 PM, Frontline will be looking at one loosely regulated industry – the assisted living industry.

The concept of assisted living began as an effort to create a less costly, more independent alternative to nursing homes for America’s seniors. Today, corporate assisted living chains dominate the industry, with a dual purpose - caring for their residents and pleasing their shareholders. And, they do so with no federal oversight, and little state oversight.

In Montana, unlike a number of states, residents and their families can hold these programs accountable in our courts, at least for now.

This is Al Smith for the Montana Trial Lawyers