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Outlook for Chemical Reform is Bright

With the elections behind us, it’s time to take stock of their meaning for our chemical reform effort. In short: things are looking bright. There will certainly be a debate in the full U.S. Senate and in statehouses around the country next year. We are in a good position to win that debate.

Fresh Faces and Returning Champions

Several strong champions of reform won this election. Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren endorsed the Safe Chemicals Act during her campaign and won a tough race. Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin – a strong champion of these issues in the House- also won, even though the American Chemistry Council (ACC) spent $600,000 supporting her opponent! Senator Jon Tester, an early supporter, won re-election in one of the toughest and most watched races in the country against someone who was strongly favored by the ACC. As an organic farmer, I think Tester is someone with a deep understanding of chemicals and their impact on health and the environment and he cares about it. Yet with a tough race looming, he most likely decided to co-sponsor the Safe Chemicals Act early because he also believed it was good politics. He was right.

Importantly, with the Senate in Democratic hands, Senator Lautenberg will continue to be the chair of the relevant Senate Sub-committee. His legislation, the Safe Chemicals Act, has 28 co-sponsors and the support of the Senate leadership. It will continue to be the driving force in the debate and Senator Lautenberg plans to move it early next year.

Bad Reviews for Kabuki Theater

The election also demonstrated the futility of the cynical gamesmanship of the ACC, the industry’s leading trade association. Its staff have conducted an elaborate “kabuki theater” where they portray themselves as working toward a bipartisan solution while going to enormous lengths to actually stop any such thing. In the run-up to the July vote, Senator Lautenberg worked with chemical companies to incorporate the substantial elements of common ground on reform that had been developed from an exhaustive dialogue between chemical makers and environmental health leaders. With help from these companies and some trade associations, a few Republican members were moving toward a compromise. Then ACC moved in, cracked down on the companies, and backed Senator Vitter as the point person for Republicans, who cited home state concerns. Senator Vitter then slow-walked the negotiations, and accused Senator Lautenberg of partisanship when he moved forward on his bill.

ACC staff as well as Exxon and Dow chemical have since been ensconced in Senator Vitter’s office writing their own legislation, which they are portraying as the basis for a bi-partisan plan that will somehow get around the sub-committee chairman, his 27 co-sponsors and the leadership. In contrast to Senator Lautenberg’s open-door approach to industry, theirs has not sought input from health and environment leaders, let alone diverse business voices, to my knowledge. Some in the chemical industry are openly questioning the point of this exercise and I don’t blame them. The true audience for the kabuki theatre couldn’t possibly be us, or the general public. It’s the ACC’s own members and Washington’s broader regulated community. The point of it is to straddle contradictions within the industry, rather than work than work through them, and to kick the can down the road while trying to smell like a rose. It’s not working.

It’s possible new Vitter legislation could wind up being a moderate proposal that lays the basis for a compromise with Senator Lautenberg, but that it is not how it is being portrayed by ACC. Instead, it’s being portrayed as a complete alternative that will gain traction in spite of him. That’s a fantasy no one can afford, including the industry.

The Path Forward

The issues put on the table by our campaign – as outlined in our platform– reflect the input of the health experts, pediatricians and nurses, environmental experts, heavily impacted communities, concerned consumers, and “downstream” businesses. The only path forward for reform is to grapple forthrightly with those issues. With our diverse membership and allies like the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Public Health Association- we have the critical mass of credibility on this subject to block any phony proposal put forward by the chemical industry. We won’t hesitate to use it. At the same time, we’ve shown a willingness to engage with those in the industry who are serious to address real concerns about compliance costs and practicality. That won’t change either.

Do industry professionals really believe that Kabuki Theater in the Beltway, combined with ads – like Dow’s inane ad this summer of a man in a chia pet suit running around the Olympic Village (apparently representing “nature”) – is the path to credibility? It’s not. Agreeing to subject their chemicals to independent scrutiny to ensure they’re safe is the path to credibility. It’s time to get on board.

The Kabuki Theater also has an opportunity cost for industry. Reformers were swept to power in several states, and I’m confident they will break through with new chemical laws and regulations next year. Several “red” states will also get in on the act, reflecting the strong support for action on this issue at the grassroots level among Republicans, including small businesses and people of faith. Any national Republican who steps forward in the right way –forthrightly working with Senator Lautenberg on a meaningful compromise — will find a large cheering section across the
political spectrum.

So let’s hope that happens soon. The health of America’s families is at stake. We demand action to protect it and we’re not going anywhere.