Policymakers who are serious about ending business as usual in Washington should start with an examination of the trial lawyers, science groups, and so-called civic groups who work together to promote anti-business regulations.
It’s long overdue. These entities may have more influence over the development of regulatory policy than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the AFL-CIO combined. Yet almost no one knows they’re there.
How did they become so powerful? Easy. Through cross-promotion and a cooperative media establishment willing to portray them as acting purely in the public interest rather than their own. On paper – and in the paper – it’s all about crusaders fighting to protect the people from evil corporations who don’t care about their workers or the communities in which they do business.
When these “white hats” win, lives are saved, animals are spared, and industrial blight is blocked. When they don’t, people die. Easy to understand narratives the public can comprehend without having to worry about or understand the actual science underlying their arguments.
Take the fight going on right now over the production of chemicals used to make coatings and other products that are heat, oil, stain, grease, and water resistant. You can find them everywhere, in everything from non-stick cookware to furniture to the insulation that surrounds electric wire. They are, to turn a phrase, a “wonder chemical” that has made our lives easier and safer for nearly 75 years.
The regulatory triumvirate, on the other hand, prefers to call them “forever chemicals” that take far too long to break down and which are therefore harmful to people and animals. They’ve accused some of the most famous names in American business of acting irresponsibly in their manufacture and poisoning entire communities.
They’re expecting big payouts from the lawsuits they filed even though their supposedly scientific arguments are dubious. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is on the fence, saying in plain English on its website “How harmful PFAs are to people and the environment?” is something “We don’t fully understand yet.”
That’s hardly conclusive yet it hasn’t stopped interest groups from pressuring the EPA to come down hard on the companies that manufacture them. The regulatory assault they are trying to prompt, which the White House or Congress could stop on the basis that the costs of shutting the industry down far outweigh the potential benefits of doing so is being driven by those who’d likely benefit economically if the deep-pocketed corporations in the chemical business could be persuaded to settle pending lawsuits.
Threatening the bottom line like that should be illegal. It isn’t, at least not yet, but companies are already moving to protect themselves. Minnesota-based manufacturer 3M announced at the end of December it would soon stop making PFAs, citing “accelerating regulatory trends” and increasing customer concerns over their use, Bloomberg reported.
That means company executives are starting to feel the heat from what the business news service called “regulatory pressure and lawsuits that threaten billions of dollars in damages.”
Customer concerns are always important, but should fear of regulation and potential legal settlements be allowed to have such influence on American manufacturing? Only if we want the lawyers to run everything in the end.
The health and safety of the public are important. But just as important are their jobs, the economic health of the communities they live in, and the need for continued growth in the economy so that living standards can rise – especially for those who have the least and are mired in a multi-generation poverty trap. Making regulations that make sense has to be a priority for those who want to change Washington. That begins by understanding that compelling stories don’t always lead to the right public policy outcomes. “Hard cases,” as the man once said, “make bad law.”
It’s time for another look at the total regulatory burden – and at the interests that are promoting a substantial increase in its size and scope. Laws like CERCLA – which established the Superfund program and which the “white hats” want to use to go after the manufacturers of PFAs – need to be revisited to make them smarter, more accountable to real science, and more harmonious between the interests of business and the communities that support them. Which, it isn’t said often enough, are in many ways one and the same.
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 veteran Washington, D.C., commentator and is a former contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report and a former United Press International senior political writer. He now writes regularly for various publications and appears regularly on international television talking about U.S. politics. You can reach him at RoffColumns AT GMAIL.com and follow him on Twitter and TruthSocial @TheRoffDraft.