Sidney Shapiro on CPRBlog {Bio}
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Ten Years After Katrina: Government Can Save Lives and Money

With the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, looking back on CPR’s landmark report on the disaster reveals two essential public policy insights. One is that a series of government policy failures resulted in a far worse disaster than would have occurred if government had been more pro-active.  The second is that more effective government requires addressing and resolving what are often difficult policy issues, something that requires an ongoing dialogue and attention to what experts know and do not know about our options.  Today, ten years after Katrina, the country has retreated even further from having pro-active government. Many elected leaders refuse even to discuss what are the appropriate functions of government, let alone what is the preferable governmental policy option. For them, there is simply no justification for expanding the government or even for adequately funding the government that we have. 

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Fairness and Equity Are Also American Values

The New Push to Protect American Workers from the Conditions of the Marketplace 

In 1873, when Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published their book, The Gilded Age, they satirized the greed, political corruption, and skewed distribution of wealth that pervaded the United States at the time. As during Twain’s time, most of the wealth generated in this country in recent decades has gone only to the very wealthiest among us. For Americans who work for a minimum wage, there has not been a raise for decades, even though inflation has worn away their buying power. Recently we have seen a national movement to raise the minimum wage, but it is not the only issue that the nation must face if it is to address the plight of workers in this economy.  

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Regulatory Delay: Why It Took OSHA 25 Years to Promulgate a Construction Safety Rule

OSHA has finally promulgated a Confined Spaces in Construction rule.  The agency waited 25 years after it had issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) to issue a rule.   Administrative law academics have been concerned for some time about the ossification of rulemaking due to a set of regulatory hurdles imposed by regulatory opponents. Proponents say these hurdles are necessary to ensure the accuracy and reasonableness of regulations, but they also deny workers and others of regulatory protection for years and years — a quarter century in this case.  In short, perfection has become the enemy of the good, a pattern that has real consequences for the workers who depend on OSHA to issue rules in a timely way.

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Workers Are Safer at Work, But Not as Safe as They Could and Should Be

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has reported that the occupational fatality rate of 3.3 deaths per 100,000 workers for 2013 was the lowest reported rate since the BLS started using its current tracking methodology in 2006.  That’s good news, but we’ve got a very long way to go still. The simple truth is that workers are not as safe as they could and should be. Although the fatality rate is down, there were still 4,585 occupational fatalities in 2013. 

The principal method for making workers safer is regulation and enforcement by the Occupational Health & Safety Administration. While about 40 percent of the deaths resulted from motor vehicle-related accidents, which is outside of OSHA’s regulatory authority, OSHA has tried to address the job risks within its jurisdiction by targeting the most dangerous industries and imposing the maximum penalties in appropriate cases. No doubt these efforts have resulted in the reported fatality reductions. To do better, however, OSHA faces a number of challenges.  

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The First Earth Day and Current Political Gridlock

Forty-five years ago I joined hundreds of people in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia for the first Earth Day.  The sad state of the environment on that day was all too apparent.  The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it caught on fire the year before.   The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill is still the third largest oil spill in American history. The air pollution in America’s cities – palpable air – had reached epidemic proportions.  Rachael Carson’s book, Silent Spring, detailing the adverse impact of toxic chemicals on the environment was eight years old, having been read by hundreds of thousands of people. 

In today’s gridlocked political environment, it is worth asking whether Earth Day still provides any lessons for the continuing struggle to protect the environment.

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Irresponsible Reform: The House Favors Extreme Legislation That Would Delay Public Protections by Ten Years or More

Today, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2015, which would amend the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to add over 74 new procedural requirements to the rule-making process, including more than 29 new “documentation” requirements.  The goal of administrative procedure is to ensure that the government’s adoption of regulation is accountable and fair, but not at the expense of hamstringing the ability of agencies to fulfill the public interest.  The House obviously has no such concern.  Agencies already take four to eight years to promulgate any type of complex and controversial regulation, and the new requirements would add another two to three years or more to the process.  House Republicans voted today to delay clean air, clean water, safer workplaces, and less toxic products for their constituents. In addition, they have given Wall Street a green light to re-engage in behavior risky enough to collect enormous profits while taxpayers are left footing the bill for the inevitable devastating consequences.

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New Legislation: How the House of Representatives Would Use Scientific Uncertainty to Stop Environmental Legislation

The House of Representatives has passed legislation (H.R. 1422) that prohibits academic scientists on EPA’s Scientific Advisory committee from participating in “activities that directly or indirectly involve review of evaluation of their own work,” but allows scientists who work for industry to serve on the Board as long as they reveal their respective conflicts of interest. To understand the House’s real motives, it is necessary to appreciate how industry seeks to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse not to act on environmental problems.  Senator Inhofe’s claim that global climate change is a hoax is a well-known example of this tactic.  Less visible is a decades long public relations, litigation, and advocacy campaign by corporate interests to manufacturer doubt about the science that supports environmental regulation.

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Chemical Industry takes Aim at Citizen Suits with 'Reform' Bill

The recent chemical spill disaster in West Virginia has brought into sharp focus the weak measures we have in place for safeguarding people and the environment against exposures to harmful chemicals.  State and civil justice systems have helped to fill the resulting void by providing individuals who have suffered harmful exposures with an opportunity to hold accountable any people or corporations responsible for the chemical by seeking reasonable compensation for their injuries.  It’s often difficult to win these cases, and even victory won’t undo the pain and fear that comes with suffering from cancer or other illnesses that can result from harmful exposures to toxic chemicals, but the process does hold out the possibility that victims can obtain some measure of justice for the harm they have endured.

Recently, industrial chemical manufacturers and users have supported a new and subtle method for undermining legal responsibility.  They are using efforts in the U.S. Senate to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)—the primary law governing federal regulation of hazardous chemicals—to enact “evidentiary preemption.”  Specifically, the chemical industry is supporting the Chemical Safety Improvements Act (CSIA), which contains a provision that would fundamentally change how civil courts consider evidence regarding the harms posed by toxic chemicals in many tort cases where people have been injured by those substances.  The upshot is that in many instances even plainly dangerous chemicals would be incorrectly regarded as “safe” for evidence purposes, which would effectively immunize the manufacturers and users of those chemicals against any liability for the harms that the substances might cause.  These companies already have a pretty sweet deal, since TSCA is so ineffective in controlling chemicals in the first place.  This bill would guarantee them an even sweeter deal: weak regulations and a hamstrung civil justice system.

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A Turning of the Tide? More Belief in Government, Less Blind Faith in Markets

Suddenly politics in this country appears to have taken a turn toward democracy and away from markets.

As we develop in a book just published by Oxford University Press, Achieving Democracy: The Future of Progressive Reform, the history of the United States reveals a pattern in which citizens alternate between relying on markets and democracy, including government intervention in those markets, to achieve the type of country in which we wish to live.

Consider: President Obama was reelected over Mitt Romney, who sought to distinguish his candidacy by forcefully endorsing the small government approach. Congress has passed a budget, rejecting Tea Party efforts once again to derail the budget process until the Affordable Care Act has been repealed. The administration is finally on its way to implementing the Act, despite unrelenting efforts to obstruct it. Republicans have joined Democrats in discussing economic inequality. Regulation of Wall Street proceeds apace after the investment banks and mortgage lenders sank the American economy with their recklessness as they now write multi-billion dollar checks for their malfeasance. If indeed the tide has turned, the country is emerging from a cycle deemphasizing government that dates back to the election of Ronald Reagan.  

It is too early to know for sure whether the country will once again embrace government as leader and partner in order to address pressing problems that markets have caused or are unable to address.  Certainly the poisoning of drinking water in Charleston, West Virginia, the latest highly visible crisis attributable to the failure to engage in effective regulation, should help add momentum. But Tea Party-backed governors and legislatures are still in control in many of the states, and they’re so eager to please the right-wing constituencies that they’ve turned back federal dollars that would pay for health 

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Senate Republicans against DC Circuit Court nominees: talking through their hats

This week, it was reported that Senate Democrats plan to force a vote to confirm one judicial nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals if Republican Senators continue to block the nominee’s confirmation. Patricia Ann Millett, who has worked for Democratic and Republican administrations in the past, is the contested candidate.  Although the circuit court has three vacancies, the Republicans oppose a vote because they say the D.C. Court of Appeals has too many judges. Senator Jefferson Sessions, for example, is quoted as saying about the court, "They have, by far, the lowest caseload per judge. They take the summers off." Other than this political rhetoric, there is nothing to back up this claim. The Republican’s true objection is that, after the President fills the vacancies, the court will have more judges that will have been appointed by presidents who were Democrats than Republicans. But this is our constitutional system. If a party wins the presidency, the President gets to fill judicial vacancies and the Senate concurs unless the person nominated is not competent. 

From the time the President announced his nominations to the Court back in June, Republicans have kept up a steady stream of misinformation about the need to fill the court. First they claimed that filling the court vacancies would amount to “court-packing,” a term that refers to an effort during the Roosevelt administration to add more judges to the Supreme Court -- not to eliminate existing seats, as the Republicans would like to do here. In addition, they were more than happy to fill the seats vacated during the Bush Administration. 

Now they claim that the D.C. Circuit does not need as many judges as it current has. Senator Grassley has crafted legislation to permanently eliminate seats on the circuit court to preclude the possibility that the President can fill the existing vacancies. In the past, however, Congress has determined how many judges are needed in each of the federal circuit courts based on recommendations of the non-partisan Federal Judicial Center, which studies caseloads and makes its recommendations based on available empirical evidence. This is why Chief Justice Roberts has asked Congress to fill the vacancies on the D.C. Circuit. As Chief Justice, he is the head of the Center and he is acting on its recommendations. In fact, the average caseload for the Court is up, from 119 cases in 2005 to 188 cases this year. The cases before the Court are also more complex than other circuits because it reviews cases involving complicated regulations adopted by agencies. It would be a shame if decisions about the number of judges in each circuit, one of the few remaining vestiges of non-partisanship left in Congress— were wiped out by Republican partisanship.

Why are the Republicans talking through their hats? The answer lies in the D.C. Circuit's unique jurisdiction over environmental, health, safety and other regulations, which gives it a particularly important role in the federal judiciary.   For years, the circuit court has had more judges appointed by Republican presidents than presidents who were Democrats. Now that President Obama has won reelection, and can change the balance, the Republicans are no longer willing to fill the vacancies that they were only to happy to fill when it was a Republican president who was choosing the nominees. 

The American people deserve better and are not falling for the Republicans’ hot air. Editorials from local papers across the country have come out in support of filling the Court’s remaining seats.  Senator Grassley’s own local paper the Daily Iowan notes:

Unlike the attempted 1937court-packing power grab by Roosevelt, Obama is not seeking to create new seats on the Court of Appeals to tilt the court’s partisan balance in his favor. Obama seeks only to fill judicial vacancies in accordance with his Constitutional job description.... Grassley argues that the court’s relatively low caseload requires such a reduction in seats, but an April report from the nonpartisan Judicial Conference of the United States, a group led by Roberts, recommended keeping the number of judges on the D.C. court at 11. The actions and the rhetoric of Grassley and the rest of his Senate partisans smack ultimately of obstructionism.

The argument that we should move seats from this circuit to other circuits because the Court is "not busy enough" is laughable at best and deeply cynical at worst. The Republican Senators simply cannot accept that their party lost the election, and they are prepared to stall judicial nominations until they win again, no matter the cost to the country or the Constitution. 

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