How Congress got to yes on toxic chemical reform

How Congress got to yes on toxic chemical reform
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Lobbyists, senators and congressional aides can recall the moment when the debate changed.

After years of slogging away at an overhaul of the nation’s toxic chemical laws, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in 2013 finally found a partner: Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterLysol, Charmin keep new consumer brand group lobbyist busy during pandemic Bottom line Bottom line MORE, a Republican from Louisiana.


Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump meets with potential Supreme Court pick Amy Coney Barrett at White House Names to watch as Trump picks Ginsburg replacement on Supreme Court Momentum growing among Republicans for Supreme Court vote before Election Day MORE (W.Va.), a centrist Democrat, saw an opportunity to put the two senators together, as they both had proposals regarding chemical safety, said Manchin spokesman Jonathan Kott.

“Somehow, just weeks before Frank passed away, Sen. Joe Manchin used his magic and got Sen. Vitter to be a co-sponsor on this bill,” said Lautenberg’s wife, Bonnie.

Vitter said he felt compelled to get involved because the “patchwork” of chemical rules at the state level had become a nightmare for businesses and because he agreed with Lautenberg’s call for stronger enforcement at the federal level.

Once the chemical reform push had bipartisan backing, lobbyists say, the entire atmosphere around the issue changed.

“I was in the room when it happened, and it was really wild,” said Ross Eisenberg, the vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), on the release of the Lautenberg-Vitter bill.

“There was a sense that it was going to be different than all these other environmental issues that we had been fighting over.”

Lautenberg’s death forced supporters of the legislation to regroup. The negotiations subsequently bogged down in the fine details of how to modernize a law — the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — that had been left virtually untouched since its passage in 1976.

But now Congress is on the verge of passing a reform bill bearing Lautenberg’s name, with a compromise ironed out over the weekend securing the support of top senators and House Democratic leaders.

Should the bill be signed into law, it would be the culmination of roughly a decade of work and countless hours of lobbying by business and consumers groups that have sought to shape the final product.

More than 230 companies and groups have listed lobbying on the TSCA on federal disclosure documents since 2010, including the NAM, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Retail Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of more than 450 groups, labor unions and individuals.

Advocates for an overhaul say an update is long overdue.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has only been able to ban five chemicals under the 1976 law. Asbestos, known to cause deadly illnesses like lung cancer, isn’t prohibited, something health advocates frequently mention when making the case for an update.

The law also does little in terms of testing new chemicals in a time when roughly 700 new ones are coming on the market each year, according to Jack Pratt, the chemicals campaign director at the Environmental Defense Fund. 

“This has been a roller coaster ride. There has been a lot of highs and lows the past 48 hours, let alone the last couple years,” Cal Dooley, the president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council and a former Democratic congressman, told The Hill after the a deal was announced on Friday. 

“When you have the breadth of support [this legislation had], and when you have [Administrator] Gina McCarthyRegina (Gina) McCarthyFormer EPA chiefs endorse Biden, criticize agency direction under Trump OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Energy Department proposes showerhead standards rollback after Trump complaints | Interior memo scaling back bird protections is 'contrary to law,' court rules | Former EPA chiefs call for agency 'reset' Former EPA chiefs call for agency 'reset' MORE and her team at the EPA that saw this as a unique opportunity to modernize the statute, everyone wasn’t going to allow this unique opportunity to slip away,” he said.

If the deal presented Friday and updated on Monday is signed by President Obama, the EPA would be granted broad new powers to regulate, test and ban chemicals, with new user fees paying the costs. The plan would also restrict the ability of states to regulate chemicals, though it would preserve some of their authority.

Sponsors expect the bill to reach the floor of the House and Senate this week in hopes that it could pass before the Memorial Day recess.

One prominent supporter is Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance Bottom line Polls show big bounce to Biden ahead of Super Tuesday MORE (D-Calif.), who fought early versions of the bill and led the fight against efforts to pre-empt state authority. She only recently endorsed the legislation after rounds of negotiations with Republicans to strengthen state power.

“I stopped this bill dead for years, because this bill didn’t do what I thought it should have done carrying Frank’s name,” Boxer told reporters Thursday.

“We came from a place where the bill was worse than current law. I couldn’t go near it. It took years of fighting and struggling,” she said.

Talks on a final deal ran over the weekend and late into Monday morning as negotiators attempted to get additional changes that would add support without alienating Democrats — including Boxer, Democratic House leaders Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (Md.), and House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.).

Final changes came after midnight, according to one advocate close to the bill, and two lobbyists referred to the changes as relatively minor. 

Most of the Democrats that advocates of the bill were hoping to court, with the exception of Rep. Paul Tonko (N.Y.), threw their weight behind the deal on Monday.

“I am not convinced that the program that will be put into place by this bill justifies the unprecedented, new limitation of states’ authorities,” Tonko said in a statement.

Pre-emption was the main concern of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition throughout the negotiations, said Andy Igrejas, the group’s director.

But last-minute talks over the weekend “substantially softened” the negative effects of the pre-emption provisions, Igrejas said, though he remains concerned about how provisions in the law related to the testing and importation of products will be implemented.

Advocates who have worked for years on reform say it’s gratifying to be near the finish line.

“Every week, when we were talking about it, it was kind of like Groundhog Day,” said a Democratic lobbyist who has been working on the TSCA for industry groups. “Every step of the way, it would crumble, but then people would ultimately come together because they wanted to get it done.”

The process, many lobbyists agreed, recalled a bygone era of greater cooperation and compromise in Washington.

“We haven’t done this in a long time. We’ve kind of forgotten what true compromise is, [getting a product] where nobody is truly happy,” the lobbyist said. “But I think it’s good. We needed this. It wasn’t easy keeping everybody on board as we moved through this.”