The Benefits of Public Protections: Ten Rules That Save Lives and Protect the Environment

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Protecting the public from harmful products and services is an important role of the American government. But regulators struggle to achieve this goal as they encounter relentless push-back from industry lobbyists trying to weaken or kill rules. Most media coverage of public protections focuses on Industry complaints about the cost of new standards (without any acknowledgment of the benefits) or devastating stories of consumer deaths resulting from a lack of regulation. Without a positive narrative, we forget about the incredible quality of life that effective safeguards afford the American public.

To draw attention back to the health, environmental and worker safety benefits we reap from government safeguards, the Center for Effective Government has released a report on 10 rules that will save over 10,000 lives and prevent 300,000 cases of disease, illness or injury each year.

The rules are:
1. Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Sillica
2. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, Ejection Mitigation
3. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, Electronic Stability Control Systems for Heavy Vehicles
4. Nutrition Labeling of Single-Ingredient Products and Ground or Chopped Meat and Poultry Products
5. Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation
6. National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter
7. Mercury and Toxics Standards
8. Control of Air Pollution from Motor Vehicles: Tier 3 Motor Vehicle Emission and Fuel Standards
9. Identification and Listing of Special Wastes; Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities
10. Effluent Limitations Guidelines and Standards for the Steam Electric Power Generating Point Source Category

Using the traditional, regulatory methodology of benefit-cost analysis, the report shows that these 10 rules have monetary social benefits that far exceed their estimated compliance costs. In addition, three of the rules are likely to create new jobs.

This just goes to show that the sky-is-falling, anti-regulatory rhetoric of industry and its allies in Congress is false. Standards and safeguards can spur innovation and even create entire new industries. Lost consumer confidence and shaky financial markets are the real job killers. We need standards and safeguards so that families who work hard and play by the rules can build a better future for themselves and their children.

The Truth in Settlements Act: A Good First Step toward Ending the Tax Deduction for Corporate Fines and Settlements

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(This post originally appeared on The Fine Print, the blog of the Center for Effective Government)
By Scott Klinger | July 29, 2014

*Note: The Truth in Settlements Act was reported out of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

When corporations commit fraud or have an accident that threatens human health or damages the environment, they pay a fine or settlement to resolve legal claims. These costs can run into the billions of dollars. In general, out-of-court settlements paid to a government for punitive damages (those designed to punish corporations for lax business practices that cause public harm) cannot be deducted from a firm’s taxes.  However, if settlements are paid to private parties or to a governmental agency as “compensation” to offset costs incurred in clean-up or during an investigation and prosecution, these fees may be written off as tax deductions. This essentially reduces costs of the settlement by one third.

In many cases, the terms of the settlement are kept secret. Recently, a few government agencies issued clear public statements on tax deductibility when announcing settlements. Upon announcing a $4 billion settlement with BP resolving criminal charges that the oil giant lied about the rate of oil leaking from its Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, a Department of Justice spokesman, when asked whether the settlement was deductible, replied, “They are not. The Attorney General was very clear that nothing in the criminal settlement could be tax deductible…” But not all agencies are as clear as this when they announce fines or settlements for corporate incidents and misdeeds.

A new bipartisan bill, The Truth in Settlements Act (S. 1898), will be marked up on Wednesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tom Coburn (R-OK), would require federal agencies to provide certain information about all fines and settlements over $1 million.  The agencies would have to disclose information on the tax benefits associated with the settlement. If settlements are deemed confidential, the agency would be required to explain why. The legislation also requires public corporations to disclose in their SEC filings any tax deductions they receive from fines or settlements with government agencies.

The disclosures required by the Truth in Settlements Act would allow citizens and taxpayers to understand the real costs of the fines and penalties corporations pay for misbehaving and to judge for themselves whether they think the punishment fits the misdeed.

We need to believe in a regulatory system that works, and to do that, we need to believe that bad actors will be held appropriately accountable. The Truth in Settlements Act is a good first step toward ensuring that fines and penalties truly deter bad corporate behavior. When corporations break the law or violate regulations, hurting the public or damaging the environment, the American people pay a price. Shareholders, not taxpayers, should pick up the full tab for damage done by corporations and for penalties imposed for illegal behavior.

We urge the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to pass the Truth in Settlements Act and hope the entire Senate adopts this important reform before this Congress ends in December.

For more information on this issue, we recommend: Subsidizing Bad Business: How Corporate Legal Settlements for Harming the Public Become Lucrative Tax Write Offs, with Recommendations for Reform, published by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund in January 2014.

Four Years After Dodd-Frank: A Lot to Celebrate, A Lot More Work to Be Done

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Six years ago in September, following a decade of under-regulation, reckless Wall Street practices crashed our economy. Two years later, in July 2010, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Since then, the process of turning the financial reform legislation into implementable law has frequently been stalled. Armies of well-financed lobbyists representing banks and industry interests have labored to water down and delay the rules, but still, consumers are reaping huge benefits from the legislation. These accomplishments are exemplary of the way our regulatory system should work to hold corporations accountable and protect the public from harm, but they are only the first steps on a longer journey to financial security and regulatory transparency.

Without a doubt, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), first envisioned by then-Professor Elizabeth Warren, has had an incredible impact on the ability of consumers to make informed decisions about financial goods and services. Since beginning to accept consumer complaints in July 2011, the CFPB has now reviewed more than 395,000 complaints on products ranging from credit cards to mortgages to student loans. This public record of complaints, along with educational tools and programs, has greatly reduced the types of predatory lending and misleading advertising that sent many consumers into debt leading up to the 2008 financial crisis.

However, powerful industry interests have taken advantage of the fact that the other regulators tasked with implementing the law, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), must rely on congressional appropriations for their funding. By lobbying Congress to starve the agencies of funds and resources, Wall Street representatives have succeeded in delaying many of the rules mandated by Dodd-Frank. To date, 208 of the 398 rules associated with the initial legislation have been finalized, and of the 190 rules waiting to be implemented, 96 requirements have yet to even be proposed.

These rules are critical for protecting the country from a similar financial crisis. Here are the top three that consumers should know and care about:

1. Under Dodd-Frank, the SEC has the authority to prevent professional brokers from misleading consumers. As it stands today, brokers acting as financial advisers can make bad investment recommendations to unsuspecting consumers for their own profit. This rule has been stalled repeatedly by fierce opposition from industry representatives who benefit from these exploitive practices.

2. Another important provision under Dodd-Frank addresses executive compensation. Many of the highest-paid CEOs in the finance industry needed to be bailed out after the 2008 financial crash. The SEC has the authority to require companies to report their CEOs’ compensation, as well as the median compensation of all other employees, allowing the public to compare these values and make judgments about the type of company they are supporting through their investment. This is necessary to bring more attention and transparency to issues like income inequality and social mobility that consumers have a right to know about.

3. Although Dodd-Frank allows the SEC to more closely regulate credit ratings agencies, little has changed since the 2008 financial crash. These are the very agencies that gave toxic mortgage securities triple-A ratings, fueling the housing bubble and leaving the economy in disarray after the crash. The SEC can and should prevent the ratings agencies from getting paid by the very companies whose securities they are assessing.

Financial reform garnered widespread attention from millions of Americans of all backgrounds and political identities – particularly those who lost their jobs and homes because of Wall Street greed. It is this unprecedented support from the public that allowed congressional leaders and champions of reform to fight hard to pass the Dodd-Frank legislation. We must continue that fight to bring security to our markets by promoting greater transparency, holding offenders of the law accountable, and pushing regulators to fully implement Dodd-Frank. This is just one example of the way regulation of all kinds ensures that families who work hard and play by the rules can build a better future for themselves and their children.

Hide No Harm bullet-proof-vests

Hide No Harm Act: We Need Corporate Accountability

A new piece of legislation introduced this week by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) would ensure that corporate executives who knowingly market life-threatening products or continue unsafe business practices are held criminally responsible when people die or are injured.

Under the Hide No Harm Act, key corporate managers will be required by law to report serious dangers to relevant government agencies, employees and affected members of the public. No longer will corporate executives be able to walk away from their crimes with a light fine. When individuals knowingly allow harmful products and practices to endanger the lives of workers and consumers, the penalties will be appropriate and proportionate: heavy fines and jail time.

This bill comes in the devastating wake of the many preventable deaths and injuries caused by General Motors’ vehicle ignition defects. Although GM officials knew about the defects for as long as 13 years before issuing a recall on their cars, no one is going to jail. Unfortunately, this is just one recent example in a long list of cases of corporate malfeasance leading to unnecessary death:

  • Toyota intentionally concealed information from the public about defects in their automobiles that caused them to accelerate even as drivers were trying to slow them down, leading to at least five deaths and resulting in no criminal penalties for individual Toyota executives.
  • Guidant, a company that manufacturers cardiovascular medical products, allowed 37,000 malfunctioning heart defibrillators to be sold, even after executives learned of deaths caused by the short-circuiting of their devices.
  • Second Chance Body Armor, a bulletproof vest manufacturer, sold defective vests to hundreds of thousands of law enforcement and military personnel, fully aware that the Zylon material used in the product was degrading and therefore penetrable, meaning bullets could pass through them.

These examples demonstrate the need for legislation that sets serious consequences for corporate executives who place the value of company profits over human lives. The American public and the families of these victims deserve justice. “No money will ever bring my wife’s daughter back,” said Ken Rimer, the stepfather of a young woman who was killed in a car crash after her air bags failed to deploy due to the ignition switch failure. But “unless there’s a consequence for them doing something wrong, what’s going to stop them from doing something wrong again?”

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U.S. Chamber, You Are Wrong

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups sure do kick and scream when any new major safeguard to protect the environment, worker safety, or consumers is being proposed. Their oft-repeated mantra about the impacts of regulation, however, is “the sky is falling” rhetoric.

The most recent example is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new proposed rules on existing power plants. The U.S. Chamber came out with a report on May 28th that claims nightmarish outcomes for consumers and the U.S. economy, but past experience just doesn’t match up with such claims.

For instance, utilities that operate coal-fired power plants tried to claim the end of the world was near when the EPA finalized a rule curbing pollution that crosses state lines, a rule the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld. A large power plant in Homer City, PA warned of “immediate and dire consequences” due to this EPA rule three years ago. Three years later, that power plant still exists and has cut its sulfur dioxide emissions by 80 percent without raising anyone’s electricity prices.

The idea that smart regulation can spur innovation is nothing new. Rules on consumer products led to better and safer goods for millions of Americans. A report from the Center for International Environmental Law on chemical safety noted that chemical safeguards helped the larger national economy. “Our study finds that stronger laws governing hazardous chemicals can not only drive innovation, but also create a safer marketplace,” said Baskut Tuncak, staff attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, and author of the report. “Well-designed laws spark the invention of alternatives and further help level the playing field to enable safer chemicals to overcome barriers to entry, such as economies of scale enjoyed by chemicals already on the market and the externalized costs of hazardous chemicals on human health.”

The problem with warnings about the effects of regulation from places like the power plant in Homer City and from groups like the U.S. Chamber is that analyzing rules on a purely economic basis almost always emphasizes and overestimates the negative consequences and the costs of the standard in question. At the same time, this analysis overlooks the tremendous social and societal benefits that result from standards and safeguards, such as improved health, lower medical costs, and fewer deaths.

“[R]egulations also shift jobs and can create new ones too. The weight of the evidence is that regulation is not a significant factor affecting overall employment levels in the United States,” notes Cary Coglianese, Director of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Americans are too intelligent to be fooled by false claims about our public protections. Bad corporate actors, however, do quite a bit to kill jobs and damage the economy by polluting the environment, endangering consumers and shipping jobs overseas. Americans want a strong system of sensible safeguards that protect them from buying an unsafe product at the store, that allows them to know they can visit a nearby river or lake without worrying about toxic waste, that they can use their credit cards and know they have expanded protections, and that they can go to work and not be put in harm’s way. Smart standards exist to make sure people have access to a fair economy and a healthy environment that benefits everyone.

o-SANTA-CLAUS-facebook

If Big Business Wrote a Letter to Santa Claus this is What It Would Say

If Big Business wrote a bill to help itself get rid of regulations it didn’t like, what would that bill look like?

We don’t have to guess anymore. This week, a group of legislators introduced the Regulatory Improvement Act, a bill designed to “improve” our nation’s regulatory system, remove “government bureaucracy and red tape,” and help businesses avoid the “burden” of complying with safeguards and standards that protect our health, safety, environment and workers. Their solution? Have politicians appoint a panel to recommend regulations for Congress to ax in a rushed process.

The bill sets up a so-called “Regulatory Improvement Commission” tasked with an already predetermined outcome. That outcome is deregulation, plain and simple. Deregulation, you probably remember, led to the financial crisis of 2008. In a time when we’ve seen so many instances of industry bad actors — including at least 13 deaths due to faulty GM ignition switches that company officials knew had problems, years of toxic air pollution and water pollution from giant companies, and financial service companies like Sallie Mae taking advantage of our veterans — should we really be thinking about how to remove vital public protections for our health, safety, environment and financial security?

The commission’s mandate would be to modify, consolidate or repeal existing regulations to reduce compliance costs for business, completely ignoring the tremendous societal benefits that standards and safeguards give to the American people.

While it takes years for a federal agency to get a final rule out the door after numerous periods of public comment and review, this commission could erase this beneficial work within months. The review process is blatantly tilted toward benefitting corporate interests rather than the public interest. The procedure for how public comments on the commission’s reports are received, and even the way the commission is tasked with writing its reports on regulations are all slanted to examining the burden on businesses, never the benefits to the public. For instance, even the “costs” associated with doing taxes counts as a burden!

Supporters argue that the commission can review only those regulations finalized more than 10 years ago. Just think of how much progress we have made in the past four decades from the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and much, much more. Regulations created from these and other laws would now be at stake.

And if there is an outdated regulation that could be removed, would it be worth all of this effort? There may well be a regulation pertaining to floppy disks, fax machines or pagers—but no one uses them anymore, and those regulations aren’t costing us anything to have written down somewhere. Is it worth setting up a new commission to remove superfluous regulations like that? Besides, most agencies already look back at existing rules – in a process that is far more careful and less politicized than the one this bill proposes.

And after all this, the commission is completely unaccountable to the public. The bill expressly states that the commission is exempt from the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (which requires public accessibility to meetings, open meetings and written advanced notice of a meeting a minimum of 15 days prior). According to the Regulatory Improvement Act, if just one member of the commission objects to a meeting being public, that meeting can be held in private.

Our vision for regulatory improvement

Nowhere does the Regulatory Improvement Act provide a way to update standards, make them stronger or more effective. If we were to write our own Regulatory Improvement Act, we would call for a regulatory review process that focuses attention on the need for stronger controls on corporations and expanded protections for the public.

Just because something is repeated often does not make it true. There is not an overabundance of regulation in this country. In reality, too much of our regulatory system has today slowed to a crawl, thanks in part to Big Business pushing at every point in the process to slow or stop new standards. They lobby against new laws; they lobby against new rules that agencies write under the existing laws; and then they lobby against strong enforcement of the rules that do get through.

By updating safeguards to better protect the public and making sure corporate bad actors are held accountable, our vision of regulatory improvement will be creating a system of standards and safeguards that better protects health and safety and puts everyone on a more equal footing, creating a fair economy for all.

The Real “Tsunami” in Federal Regulatory Policy

(This post originally appeared on CPRBlog, the blog of the Center for Progressive Reform)

By Rena Steinzor, President of the Center for Progressive Reform | May 22, 2014

The federal regulatory system is in crisis. For the past several decades, a damaging set of mandates has continued to pile up on the books—mandates that threaten to stifle critical progress and undermine the nation’s ability to compete in the world economy. Even today, out-of-touch policymakers are attempting to add still more of these mandates, without regard to their direct, indirect, and cumulative costs to society. One might say that we are facing a tsunami, a flood, or even an avalanche of these mandates. Continue reading

The official blog of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards

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