Serious policymakers who want to bring business as usual in Washington to an end would do well to explore the connections between trial lawyers, so-called science and safety groups, and the progressive activists who consort with them to promote the regulation of business.
These groups may have more influence over U.S. regulatory policy than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the AFL-CIO. Yet most people don’t realize they’re there.
Their powerful and cross-promote each other’s interests while pretending to be independent. That way the media lambs who go for such stories can portray them as acting purely in the public’s interest, not their own.
When these white hats beat the so-called evil business interests, lives are saved, animals are spared, and condemned communities come back to life. Think “Working Girl” meets “Erin Brockovich.” Easy-to-understand narratives overwhelm real science, while sob stories lead readers and viewers to the desired conclusions.
One example is the fight to stop the production of chemicals used to make heat, oil, stain, grease, and water-resistant coatings and other products. They’re everywhere, from non-stick pots and pans to the insulation around electric wire.
These wonder chemicals have made our lives easier and safer for 75 years. But the regulatory advocates, who’ve labeled them “forever chemicals” because of the length of time it takes for them to break down, say they’re harmful to people and animals. Their targets are the bank accounts of some of the most famous names in American business who they say act irresponsibly and accuse of poisoning entire communities.
They’ve filed lots of lawsuits. They expect big payouts when the companies settle, since that is the cheaper outcome. Yet even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is angling to put these chemicals on the Superfund list says in play English on its website they don’t fully understand yet how harmful PFAs are to people and the environment.
That’s hardly conclusive. Yet it hasn’t stopped interest groups from pressuring the EPA to come down hard on the manufacturers of PFAs. The regulatory assault they want, and which the White House or Congress could stop on the basis that the costs incurred by an industry shutdown would far outweigh the proven benefits, continues.
These lawsuits, as they do for other industrial manufacturers, threaten the corporate bottom line. As a defendant, it’s usually cheaper to settle than fight these kinds of suits. Some companies are already moving to protect themselves. Bloomberg reported in December that Minnesota-based 3M Corporation would soon stop PFA production because of “accelerating regulatory trends” and increasing customer concerns over their use.
Company executives are meant to feel the heat from what the business news service called “regulatory pressure and lawsuits that threaten billions of dollars in damages.” It weakens their opposition and opens their checkbooks.
The health and safety of the public are important. So are their jobs and the economic health of the communities they live in. Regulations have to make sense, and that has to be a priority for Washington policymakers. Compelling stories don’t always lead to correct public policy.
Congress needs to take another look at the total federal regulatory burden, and at the interest groups interested in making it grow. Laws like the one that created the Superfund need to be revisited and made smarter, more accountable to real science, and able to function in support of rather than in opposition to community and business interests.
In many important ways, they’re the same thing. Sound, sensible regulation emerging from the informed interests of all stakeholders rather than from screaming headlines is the way toward prosperity, security, and a cleaner, safer world.
Peter Roff is a media fellow at the Trans-Atlantic Leadership Network, a former columnist for U.S. News and World Report, and senior political writer for United Press International. Contact Roff at RoffColumns@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @TheRoffDraft