One of the many ways that the slow and agonizing contraction of the newspaper industry is felt is in the depth of coverage that papers provide their readers. It’s a matter of simple math, really. As newsrooms shrink, reporters are stretched ever thinner. So a newspaper that 15 years ago had separate reporters covering elementary and secondary education is now likely to have just one covering both. Similarly, newspapers have fewer reporters dedicated to the environmental beat, let alone beats covering regulatory issues — topics at the heart of the Center for Progressive Reform’s work. The result is that many reporters don’t have time to take on stories they might once have covered, and if they do, they sometimes have a steeper learning curve and too little time to really dig in. That’s a recipe for simplistic coverage, which is just a nice way of saying bad coverage.
But I’d like to highlight two notable exceptions. On Tuesday, two of the nation’s leading newspapers offered stories about regulation that went far beyond the norm.
Think for a moment about the storyline on regulation for the past couple years. Republicans in Congress, intent on devising some rationale for the nation’s economic woes that does not point back to the failings of their own deregulatory policies, have resaddled their longstanding anti-regulatory campaign with a new and timely argument: that a supposed flood of regulations from the Obama Administration is choking off the recovery.
It’s a hard case to make if you stick to the facts. The truth is that regulations produce vastly more economic benefit than they cost – that is the purpose of the cost-benefit analysis wringer through which major regulations are fed before they are finalized. With very rare exception, if a regulation’s dollar benefits don’t exceed its dollar costs, it gets rewritten or killed. (And keep in mind that that the big failing of the cost-benefit process is that it overestimates costs and underestimates benefits.)Full text
In an article in the most recent issue of The Abell Report, the newsletter of The Abell Foundation, CPR President Rena Steinzor and CPR Policy Analysts Aimee Simpson and Yee Huang take a look at what ails the Chesapeake Bay (Spoiler Alert: it involves years of inaction on pollution), and offer up a number of practical steps the state of Maryland could take to make good on its commitments to clean up this most precious of natural resources.
The article draws on a day-long forum CPR co-sponsored this past October with the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, an event that gathered federal and state officials, as well as leading environmental activists from around the region.
Steinzor, Simpson and Huang make the case that the reason efforts to clean up the Bay have largely failed to date is that the Bay states are fundamentally unaccountable. They write:
For more than two decades, the primary Bay states (the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) have engaged in a series of round-robin consultations held under the auspices of the Chesapeake Bay Program. Progress was made in diagnosing the causes and implications of dead zones; diminishing crab and fish populations; algal blooms; and pollution that made rivers, lakes, creeks, and streams unusable for drinking, swimming, and boating. Individual states implemented innovative and effective pollution-control programs; glossy reports were produced; and every year, governors and the administrator of the EPA gathered for a photo op on the banks of picturesque Bay waterbodies. Despite the analyzing, meeting, planning, and talking, the Bay’s health remains tenuous, and the Bay states have repeatedly failed to meet the pollution-reduction goals set during these appearances.
Nothing attracts attacks in politics quite like a show of weakness. That’s obviously how energy industry lobbyists read President Obama’s recent retreat on ozone standards. So now that the Administration has demonstrated its willingness – you might even call it eagerness – to cave in on much needed environmental regulation, it’s no surprise that polluting industries are of a mind to press their luck.
How else to explain a request to the Environmental Protection Agency from the American Petroleum Institute – that’s the oil and natural gas industry trade group – to delay until late 2013 forthcoming regulations on refineries, including landmark greenhouse gas regulations.
The current plan is for those rules to be finalized at the end of this year.
To review the bidding on this, the greenhouse gas regs are the first to emerge from EPA after a long and brutal battle that involved eight years of Bush Administration intransigence, even in the face of a Supreme Court ruling that all but ordered the Administration to go ahead and regulate greenhouse gases. The Bush effort pretty much spanned the industry playbook. On the campaign trail in 2000, compassionate conservative George W. Bush said he’d regulate carbon dioxide to combat climate change. Once elected, he reneged, and took the view that climate change needed much, much, much more study. Years of study, in fact. Of course, when the scientists weighed in, the Bush team worked to suppress their expert opinion that climate change was real, man-made, and happening now.
Finally, the Administration ended up before the Supreme Court, which, despite its conservative majority, concluded that the Administration’s arguments on why it shouldn’t regulate greenhouse gases were just so much hot, CO2-laden air. Still, President Bush managed to leave town without making any progress toward regulation.Full text
As part of its ongoing campaign to derail health, safety, and environmental regulations that it regards as inconvenient to industry, the Chamber of Commerce sent a letter earlier this month to Cass Sunstein, Administrator of the White Hosue Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, calling on him to push the EPA to suspend an initiative to list BPA and several other substances as "Chemicals of Concern." Today three Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform sent a letter to Sunstein, arguing that the Chamber had misread the law and calling on Sunstein to allow EPA to publish the proposed rule so that the public can comment on it.
EPA is considering listing BPA and four other chemicals using its authority under § 5(b)(4) of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Each of the chemicals (or classes of chemicals)—BPA, Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), Nonylphenol (NP) and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), Phthalates, and Polybrominated Diphenyl (PBDE)—poses significant health and safety risks that the EPA has rightly determined warrant public dissemination.
In their letter today, CPR Member Scholars Noah Sachs, Rena Steinzor, and Wendy Wagner lay out how the Chamber misreads the law in its demand that the EPA promulgate specific standards prior to proposing § 5(b)(4) listings. TSCA sets a clear standard, that the EPA Administrator may list any chemical that she finds “may present an unreasonable risk.” That “may present” standard is used throughout TSCA, and no court has ever forced the agency to define the term numerically, as the Chamber demands.
The Member Scholars also write that the Chamber’s lawyers misread the law by asserting that EPA is exceeding its authority in moving to list the chemicals:Full text
The Washington Post reports today on the White House’s latest failed effort to extract political gain from the President’s misguided “regulatory look-back,” led with disturbing enthusiasm by Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The story tells us a lot about the thinking of the man who controls access to the President, and also lays bare a failing of the way the media covers regulatory issues.
According to the Post, White House chief of staff William M. Daley appeared Thursday before a National Association of Manufacturers gathering hoping to “make nice with corporate America.” But instead, he endured a series of hostile questions from the audience of manufacturing executives eager for looser regulation of their industries.
Daley served up the President’s regulatory look-back as evidence of the Administration’s willingness to weaken regulation in order to please industry – and perhaps the occasional independent voter. But the titans of industry were having none of it. Quotes the Post:
“We think there’s a thin facade by the administration to say the right things, but they don’t come close to doing things,” said Barney T. Bishop III, chief executive of the business group Associated Industries of Florida. He called the efforts to streamline regulations “immaterial.” “We love the platitudes, but we want to see action,” Bishop said.
In a telling example that the Post story doesn’t bother to run down, a Massachusetts utility exec named Doug Starrett complained to Daley that the “Administration [was] blocking construction on one of his facilities to protect fish, saying government ‘throws sand into the gears of progress.’” If Daley offered any defense, or even allowed for the prospect that there might be more to the story, the Post doesn’t mention it. Instead, Daley is paraphrased as saying he “did not have many good answers, appearing to throw up his hands in frustration at what he called, ‘bureaucratic stuff that’s hard to defend.’ ‘Sometimes you can’t defend the indefensible,’ he said.”
Maybe so, but it might have been useful to gather a fact or two before pointing fingers at “bureaucrats.” Here’s a little background on Starrett’s facility, courtesy of the Worcester Business Journal.Full text
Robert R.M. Verchick recently completed a two-year stint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and returned to his work at Loyola University in New Orleans, and, happily, to the rolls of active CPR Member Scholars. While at EPA, he published Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World, and just a few days after returning to CPR, he's published two op-eds on disaster preparedness and recovery.
In the Christian Science Monitor on April 13, he asked whether Japan's recovery from the recent tsunami and nuclear disaster would be "heavy-handed or hands-off"? He goes on to contrast the recovery efforts in Japan after a 1995 earthquake laid waste to the city of Kobe with the ongoing post-Katrina recovery in Verchick's home town of New Orleans. In Kobe, Verchick says, strong-willed Mayor Kazutoshi Sasayama developed a master plan for reconstructing the city, and pursued it with iron determination. Verchick writes,
[P]rogress came at great cost. That “makeover” became for some a “takeover,” as residents of modest means saw their property downsized or expropriated. Japan’s emergency management office officially refused to allow government aid to go directly to residents (although some local governments ignored the edict), foisting hardship on the city’s elderly and disabled populations, as well as the working poor. Public hostility mounted. On the first anniversary of the quake, the city’s vice-mayor committed suicide. Eventually, city leaders reversed their previous stances and invited greater community involvement; but among some, resentment continues to this day.
By contrast, the New Orleans recovery has been marked, in Verchick's description, by a "light touch."Full text
Right about this time a year ago, Americans were learning about a massive explosion aboard an oil rig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico called the Deepwater Horizon that had occurred the day before. Video footage of the flame-engulfed rig began splashing across television screens, and we were told that 11 workers on the rig were “missing.” (In fact, those workers had been killed.)
Also unclear or unrevealed was the extent of the environmental harm that was being done. In the day-after stories, BP and the federal government expressed the view that pollution was not much of a concern. Here’s what the New York Times article said,
Officials said the pollution was considered minimal so far because most of the oil and gas was being burned up in the fire. “But that does have the potential to change,” said David Rainey, the vice president in charge of the Gulf of Mexico exploration for BP, which is leasing the rig.
And change it did. The months-long ooze of crude oil from the well beneath Deepwater Horizon eventually came to be the largest oil spill in U.S. history.Full text
CPR Member Scholar John Echeverria was on Capitol Hill yesterday, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution. His topic was a proposed bill from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) to impose federal limits on state and local use of eminent domain – the authority to condemn private property so that it can be used for public purposes. The subject became particularly controversial in 2005 when the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Kelo vs. City of New London, upholding the city’s condemnation of private property so that it could be sold and developed by a private developer whose project the city had concluded served the public interest of economic development.
Sensenbrenner’s bill, H.R.1433, the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2011, would suspend federal economic development funds for states that condemn property for purposes of economic development. That’d be a powerful disincentive, although short of an outright prohibition on the use of eminent domain. Of course, there’s only so far that Congress can go in banning the use of eminent domain, since it is explicitly authorized in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. (That’s right, the amendment that ensures citizens cannot be forced to testify against themselves also protects us against double jeopardy, ensures due process of law, and prohibits governments from taking private property for public use without providing just compensation. It’s an action-packed 108 words.)
In his testimony, Echeverria argues that federal action is “unnecessary, unwise as a matter of policy, and would be highly destructive of the recent efforts by the States to address this specific issue.” He goes on to say:
The basis for these conclusions is that, in the six years since the Kelo decision was handed down, every or virtually every state legislature in the country has studied proposed reforms on this subject, held hearings on the use of eminent domain, and in many cases enacted new legislation limiting the use of eminent domain. In addition, in several States ballot measures addressing eminent domain reform have been submitted to the voters. All told, approximately 40 States, four-fifths of all the States in the nation, have now adopted some kind of post-Kelo reform measure. Some applaud the reform steps adopted, while others believe that some of these steps have been misconceived. Some believe certain state legislatures have gone too far in curtailing the power of eminent domain, while others believe some States have not gone far enough or have abdicated their responsibility by not imposing any new constraints on this governmental power. The bottom line, however, is that the state legislatures, as well as the voters themselves in some States, have fully engaged on this issue.
His full testimony is here.Full text
This afternoon at 1:00 p.m., the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power will check one more box in the House GOP's ongoing effort to demonstrate its appreciation to the corporate interests that helped elect them, by holding a hearing on a proposal disingenuously called the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act of 2011, or as they acronym-ize it, the TRAIN Act.
As the name does not at all suggest, it’s a bill about undercutting environmental regulations that inconvenience the energy industry. The idea is to create a sort of non-environmentally minded Star Chamber to review the full slate of Clean Air Act and coal ash regulations, for the purpose of concluding that they cost too much. That’s not quite how they phrase it, of course, but that is the purpose.
Here’s an excerpt from the committee majority staff’s description of the bill:
In the past two years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has promulgated numerous final and proposed rules that will require retrofitting of power plants, increased fees for new construction and operation of units from diverse sectors of the economy, potential construction delays, revisions to state plans to implement federal requirements, and the adoption of Best Available Control Technology measures to address greenhouse gas emissions from diverse sources.
EPA’s own analysis indicates that some of these rules will have significant costs; other actions have not yet been analyzed. There has not, however, been an analysis of the cumulative impacts of these regulations on global competitiveness, cumulative change in energy and fuel prices, employment, or reliability of the electricity supply. Nor has there been an analysis of the cumulative impacts on consumers; small businesses; regional economies; state, local and tribal governments; specific labor markets; and agriculture.
Of course, every rule that emerges from EPA undergoes a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, totting up every penny of cost to industry (calculated by industry, for the most part, so you can imagine they don’t under-project), and comparing it with the dollar value of the benefits that would result. For a number of reasons, that process is deeply flawed and slanted against protective regulations. It ignores, for example, the value of benefits that can’t be readily monetized, with the net effect that benefits are commonly understated, while the costs to industry are often exaggerated.Full text
One hundred years ago today, 146 people perished in one of the nation’s worst workplace tragedies – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the heart of New York City. The story is gruesome, and each detail of exactly how so many people were trapped in a burning building was, and remains, a reminder of what can happen when worker safety is sacrificed in the name of profit.
Here’s the barest sketch. The Triangle Waist Factory in lower Manhattan relied on cheap, exploitable labor to produce women’s blouses – shirtwaists, as they were known. The factory occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a building at 29 Washington Place, and its employees were mostly young immigrant women, some as young as 14. They’d come to the United States for a better life, and found themselves working more than 50 hours a week, six days a week, in a non-union shop, laboring under sweatshop conditions. (This, of course, was before unions had essentially created the concept of “the weekend.”)
On March 25, 1911, at about 4:45 p.m., fire broke out on the 8th floor and spread quickly to floors above, fueled by piles of fabric scraps. The factory had no alarm system and no sprinklers, although such technology was available. Workers were quickly trapped, not just by the flames but by doors locked by company officials worried that workers would abscond with fabric if allowed to leave by any but the main door. The fire escapes did not reach to the ground, and eventually collapsed under the weight of the many escapees. A heroic elevator operator made several rescue runs but had to abandon the effort when the elevator’s guide rails buckled under the heat. Responding fire trucks lacked ladders that could reach the victims. Faced with the prospect of being burned alive, many of the workers chose instead to leap to their deaths.
Watching in shock that day was a young social worker, Frances Perkins, who would go on to champion a successful crusade for safer working conditions. (She would later become the first female Cabinet member, serving as FDR’s Labor Secretary.)
In a spot-on piece in Wednesday’s Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson observes that industry rose in opposition to Perkins’ proposed reforms, offering arguments that ring familiar even today. Proposed fire code reforms would cause “the wiping out of industry in this state,” said the Associated Industries of New York, and were “absolutely needless and useless,” said a lawyer for the Real Estate Board of New York City. The president of the Real Estate Board argued that, “To my mind this is all wrong….The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government, that the unfettered initiative of the individual is the force that makes a country great and that this initiative should never be bound…”Full text