Waxman suggests 'scaling back' chemical reform bill

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) says lawmakers should considering “scaling back” their efforts to reform the nation's decades-old chemical laws, as House Republicans and Democrats appear to be making little progress on striking a deal.

Republicans and Democrats agree on the importance of reforming the outdated Toxic Chemicals Control Act (TSCA) from 1976, but that's about all they agree on. With both sides showing signs of frustration over the lack of cooperation, Waxman suggested Tuesday they “return to the drawing board.”

“I'm not ready to give up, but I do have a suggestion,” Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a subcommittee hearing. “I think we should considering scaling back the ambition of this effort. Let's focus on where we can find agreement. Let's see if we can return to the drawing board and come up with a streamlined proposal that can truly be bipartisan.”

Democrats are upset with Rep. John Shimkus' (R-Ill.) plan to reform the nation's chemical laws. Last week, Shimkus came out with his second draft bill on the issue, but both versions have been widely criticized by public health and environmental groups. 

“We can do better, and that's what we're trying to do,” said Shimkus, chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that is reviewing the legislation. 

Shimkus says he has tried to reach across the aisle, but Democrats say it's only for show. They contend that his plan panders to industry and would actually weaken the nation's current chemical laws. They're calling for more concessions from Republicans.

This has both sides bickering over the future of chemicals reform. The current Congress has until the end of the year to reach an agreement, experts say, or risk losing any momentum lawmakers have already achieved when the new Congress comes in on Jan. 3, 2015.

“TSCA reform is neither easy nor simple, and there is still no guarantee that we will succeed in forging a consensus bill this year,” Shimkus said.

Nonetheless, Shimkus pointed to several changes he made in his second draft bill to address Democrats concerns. 

He said the legislation would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate the risk a chemical poses based on the nature and magnitude of the risk, impact on potentially exposed subpopulations, whether harm has already occurred, and the probability that harm will occur.

One of the Democrats' biggest concerns is that states will be prevented from enforcing their own chemical regulations in the absence of EPA action on so-called low-priority chemicals. But under the new rules, states would be allowed to continue enforcing existing regulations on these chemicals, even though they wouldn't be allowed to adopt new regulations, Shimkus said. 

Furthermore, Shimkus said the new draft would not allow the EPA to consider the economic costs or benefits of a chemical, which critics suggest could bias the agency's decision in favor of industry. 

But Democrats have suggested these changes are “cosmetic only” and do not go far enough to address the real issues of chemicals reform.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said the draft bill “falls far short.”

“A partisan bill that does not incorporate even the modest recommendations of the public health and environmental communities will not become law,” Tonko warned.