Piles of Legislation

This one’s a work in process…

  • From a Bill Moyer’s Journal Interview:  “Unnecessary complexity just creates rich opportunities for systemic corruption”?

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    They’re Doing This On Purpose

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    It’s not really the problems that are incomprehensible these days but the piles of legislation that attempt to address them.  Right now the country’s involved in four daunting legislative challenges:  Healthcare [i], financial [ii], chemical/toxics [iii],[iv] and climate reform [v] – all of which are happening somewhat simultaneously.  And deep down you’ve got to wonder – If everyone knows what’s at stake with something as big as financial reform or climate change, shouldn’t it be easy to craft straightforward legislation?  I mean if there was ever a time…  And yet, regardless of the indisputable evidence to the contrary, we’re still squabbling about the financial sector’s ability to self-regulate and the substance and prospective impact of climate change.  So the answer is likely a big NO-on-all-fronts regarding the enactment of comprehensible, easily enforceable legislation.

    Once again it seems that our ability to suspend disbelief overpowers even immutable evidence – especially when it comes to expansive issues that demand sweeping changes.  But there’s obviously more to it than that.  And as far as I can tell, no one’s summed it up better than Mike Tidwell, head of The Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

    Who?” you might ask…

    Don’t worry – you’ll remember this guy after reading what he had to say in Copenhagen during the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference.  It just goes to show how simply such complicated issues can be encapsulated and explained.

    Frank Sesno:  “Mike let me start by just asking you to put in the most simple terms you possibly can what’s at stake in Copenhagen.”

    Mike Tidwell:  “…It’s like President Mohamed Nashid of the Maldives said yesterday here in Copenhagen during a very passionate and emotional speech to about 1500 people in downtown Copenhagen.  You know, he said we’d like to negotiate – we’d like to compromise in the typical political fashion – but the planet’s basic physics and biology don’t compromise in that way, and that we have to get to this level – 350 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2100 or we’re going to lose the planet upon which human civilization developed.  So I think what’s at stake is the world finally understanding that there’s a number by which we can measure treaty success or failure.  It’s no longer about well – it’s good enough, it’ll get us through, we’ll muddle along. Since the arctic ice melt season of 2007 when James Hanson and others said – We’ve obviously crossed a trigger point in one major ecological system – arctic ice.  And from that, Hanson and others were able to determine – Here’s what we believe is the best safety number for global warming pollution atmosphere – 350 ppm.  Now we’re in Copenhagen trying to negotiate a treaty that gets us toward that number.  And that’s what I think is really at stake – Do we accept as a planet and as all the nations of the planet that we finally have a clear road map and we finally have a way to really judge progress.”

    Sesno:  “What’s your definition of success out of Copenhagen?”

    Tidwell:  “Well, I don’t know what that definition necessarily would be.  But I do know that a bad treaty is worse than no treaty at all.  I think that if we leave Copenhagen without an agreement, then we’re better than leaving with an agreement that locks us in to 700/800 ppm. There’s an MIT team here that’s literally hour by hour taking all the commitments, all the goals being set out by the different nations and plugging them into a formula that spits out what those various commitments from India, China, and the United States would get us in 2100.  And right now the latest is 770-ppm CO2 if we take everything that’s on the table right now.  That’s obviously…  If we get a treaty that locks us into that, we’re much better off with gridlock and disagreement and hope for something better in 2010 than to officially and by international law committing to that suicide pact.”

    And now the enlightening part…

    Sesno: “What do you think is the most difficult issue between where we are and the success you want?  Is it political?  Is it economic?  Is it technical?”

    Tidwell:  “I think that the same problem we have now that we had twelve years ago in Kyoto and all the years in between is basic human denial.  It appears that we’re not really well-wired as a species to deal with this issue.  We’ve never been really well-wired for long-range horizons.  Human beings tend to accept a smaller reward now than the promise of a bigger reward later.  It’s just the way we are and there’s obviously an evolutionary benefit of some kind to that. But you’re starting to see that denial melt away in the same way that you’re seeing the arctic ice disappear.  Al Gore was here at the Copenhagen talks yesterday and unveiled some new science from the National Postgraduate Naval Academy that showed that the arctic could be completely ice-free in the summer by 2014.  That denial is starting to erode, that human denial, but it’s not eroding as fast as the literal ice is, so we’ve got to overcome the denial.  Look – the technological means to solve this problem are clearly with us.  The city of Copenhagen itself emits one-sixth the per-capita carbon emissions as a resident of Washington DC…” [vi]

    “We’ve never been really well-wired for long-range horizons.” From where I’m standing that’s got to be the understatement of the century.  In a world that’s wildly overpopulated and ever more overly consumptive, it would appear as though we’re rather poorlywired than anything else.  And among other things this shortsightedness, or denial as it were, is something that many a poorly wired industry and government official has striven to ‘proliferate’ – an appropriate word considering how similar the spread of denial is to that of nuclear weapons, since neither could possibly lead to anything good.  As for denial as it relates to government?  The results have either been a lack of properly evolving regulatory measures and control, or that which is driven by massive tomes of incomprehensible legislation. It’s as if there’s no happy medium here at all – because where massive tomes reside so too does misinterpretation, and thus the incapacity, once again, to enact and maintain proper enforcement measures.  Frustration on this front was best expressed recently in an Alternet article, which blasted the country’s latest efforts to produce coherent climate legislation:

    “If that plucky, animated, singing scrap of paper from Schoolhouse Rock! –‘(I’m Just a) Bill’– were around today, he’d be begging us to keep him out of the Senate. That’s where good ideas go to get their teeth knocked out, to get fattened with pork and disfigured with loopholes, coming out the other end as Frankenstein versions of the initiatives they once were. We’re left asking, is this creature something we can live with and improve over time, as was the case with healthcare reform? Or is the result so hopelessly compromised that it ought never see the light of day?

    Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change legislation, all signs are pointing to system failure. Congress urgently needs to pass a comprehensive climate bill, but the current Senate proposal, spearheaded by senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham, threatens to do more harm than good. It is not only inadequate to the task of curbing climate change; it could curtail the power of the EPA and state governments to regulate greenhouse gases–the best avenues for action in the face of Congress’s failures.

    The cap-and-trade bill that Obama originally proposed was by no means perfect. It did not even try to meet the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is minimally necessary from industrialized nations to avoid a chain-reaction climate catastrophe. But it did include a key mechanism that environmentalists regard as essential for cap and trade to work effectively: it would have auctioned off 100 percent of carbon credits, rather than giving them away, thereby raising funds that could be used to offset the burden of higher energy prices on low- and middle-income families and be invested in renewable energy.

    By the time the 1,427-page Waxman-Markey bill squeaked through the House last June, however, those crucial elements of the Obama proposal had been eviscerated. Waxman-Markey would sell only 15 percent of carbon credits at an initial auction, with the rest doled out to polluters, free. Waxman-Markey also includes other concessions to the fossil fuel industry–most alarming, stripping the EPA of much of its regulatory power over greenhouse gases (see Christian Parenti, “The Case for EPA Action,” in this issue).

    The outlook in the Senate is, if anything, worse. At this writing, its final details have not been released, but from early reports it appears that the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill would keep and extend the worst aspects of Waxman-Markey: inadequate emissions-reduction targets (only 3 percent below 1990 levels by 2020), too many free permits and too many allowances for carbon offsets, which are of dubious value in fighting climate change (see Heather Rogers, “Offset Buyers Beware,” in this issue).” [vii], [viii]

    In their defense legislators would likely say that these are complex issues requiring carefully crafted measures, the details of which encompass thousands of pages.  The reality is that the issues aren’t nearly as complex as officials would have them appear.  The science behind problems like climate change or toxics exposure is complicated, yes, but it’s also definitive.  In both cases the science continues to prove significant impact and harm, and therefore the absolute necessity for a response that incites protective action. And although “science” per se may not fully cover issues like health care or financial reform, there’s plenty of factual evidence to prove, once again that a call to serious action is necessary.  Most importantly – proposed action doesn’t need to be complicated.  It just needs to solve the respective problem.  A perfect example of this is Senator Maria Cantwell’s 32-page climate bill, called The Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act of 2009. According to a recent article:

    “CLEAR limits the quantity of fossil carbon allowed to enter the U.S. economy. In other words, rather than requiring a downstream power plant to reduce its CO2 emissions, the bill requires the upstream coal, natural gas and oil companies that supply the power plant to limit their carbon production.

    By shifting the responsibility upstream to the wellhead or mine or port of entry, the bill slashes administrative costs to a fraction of what they will be under Waxman-Markey. Only a few thousand energy-producing or importing firms would be covered, versus the hundreds of thousands or more entities covered under Waxman-Markey.

    Peter Dorman, at the blog EconoSpeak, noted in May:  The decision to issue permits on an industry-by-industry basis — to cap the uses of carbon fuels rather than their sources [invites] … never-ending bickering over who is allowed to emit how much. Every little tweak of the system — whether to include freight transportation or agriculture [which crops!] — has to be hammered out separately. Reductions are calculated from a baseline, but there are acres of wriggle room about how to measure who emitted how much in the base year, and therefore how much should be reduced tomorrow. Enforcement is complex, expensive and full of loopholes.

    Auctions vs. Allowances: Focusing upstream allows Cantwell to avoid this administrative swamp. It also allows her to do what Waxman-Markey should have done: require carbon polluters to pay for their pollution. CLEAR requires carbon producers to buy 100 percent of the carbon shares they need. None are given away.” [ix]

    The biggest problem with cut-and-dried legislation like this?  It doesn’t pander to all of the blameworthy corporate constituencies that pump elected officials full of financial support, and thus the need for thousands of pages rather than just thirty-two.

    Finally – and you’ll have to forgive what I’m about to say here, but – if all of this seems like “same sh*t different day” or old news that we can do nothing about, consider the perspective of someone who’s been in the business of trying to change the world for a long time now.  Last words on the subject are therefore dedicated to the illustrious Dennis Hayes, President and CEO of The Bullitt Foundation and National Coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970:

    (Minute 30:03)  “Built by lobbyists… When I was young I thought that the reason that the good guys were gonna be winning was because we worked so damned hard. I was paid $4500 a year and on average I worked 90-hours a week, and I just figured – we’re gonna kick [or “cut” ?] their butts man – we’re smart, we’re driven.

    That’s not gonna do it for us. The lobbyists that are there are really smart. Managing editors from the Harvard Law Review. They’re working 80-hours a week for a little bit more money than we were. And they’re dedicated. And you get that kind of talent – you pay them $500 an hour – and their job for 9-months is to move an apostrophe from one side of the “s” to the other side of the “s”, thus making this thing not targeted at a particular company but a particular industry, hence being worth an enormous amount of money to somebody – and they’ll get it done. It’s that level of stuff that just gets buried in these huge, complex pieces of legislation that come back and bites us in the rear time after time after time.

    We don’t win when we’re dealing in that complex world almost ever. We win when we get the public aroused about something that is comprehensible and they bring enough pressure upon people. No matter how much the Supreme Court gives latitude to corporations to get engaged in political activities, they still haven’t given them the vote and we can vote these guys out of office if they make it a voting issue. Incidentally, is there anybody in the room who agrees with the Supreme Court that the principal problem with American politics is that it didn’t have enough corporate money in it?” [x]

    If he sees this type of legislation as a serious problem, maybe we should sober up, heed his concerns, and then work together to do whatever it takes to end practices like this.

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    [i] Healthcare Reform Portal – Whitehouse.gov

    Healthcare Reform Portal – Reality Check Series

    NPR’s Series:  Prescription For Change

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    [ii] Go to NPR.org and search using the following key words:  “financial reform”  or “consumer financial protection” or “consumer financial protection agency”.

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    [iii] TITLE: Lautenberg bill seeks to overhaul U.S. chemical laws.  AUTHOR: By Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post Staff Writer.  DATE:  April 15, 2010.    See full article attached below…

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    [iv] The Environmental Working Group’s:  Health/ToxicsNews

    The Environmental Working Group’s:  Kids-Safe-Chemical’s Act

    Cosmetics Laws and Regulations

    Cosmetics safety virtually unregulated by Federal Law (More)

    EWG News Release: FDA Creates Culture of Ignorance for Personal Care Products

    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – 2010 News Coverage

    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – Press Releases

    Campaign for Safe Cosmetics – Newsroom – Reports

    What Toxicology Won’t Measure – And What To Do

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    [v] See all of the embedded references in the body of this article for an update on what’s happening on the climate legislative front.

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    [vi] TITLE: Planet Forward – Interview with Mike Tidwell, CCAN.  DATE: December 18, 2009 at 3:52pm.

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    [vii] TITLE: What to Do When the Current Climate Change Legislation Threatens to Do More Harm Than Good.  SUBTITLE: Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change legislation, all signs are pointing to system failure.  AUTHOR:  DATE: April 15, 2010.

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    [viii] Annie Leonard, the host of “The Story of Stuff” just completed a video to educate people in a VERY ENTERTAINING WAY about Cap & Trade, and the possibilities therein. It’s a really fast paced, educational video that I think everyone would really enjoy and learn from… http://storyofstuff.com/ ; (then hit “The Story of Cap & Trade” image)

    If there are too many people watching “The Story of Cap & Trade”, you can catch it here as well.

    An alternative perspective can be found at:

    TITLE:  The Facts of Cap-and-Trade.

    Economist Nat Keohane uncovers the real facts behind clean energy legislation in our short video: “The Facts of Cap-and-Trade.” With some help from a team of animators, Nat explains why a cap on global warming pollution is the best option to create a better future for America.

    EPA’s Cap-and-Trade Portal can be found here

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    [ix] TITLE: New Proposed Climate Change Bill in Washington Is Simpler and More Equitable.  SUBTITLE: Happily, a new climate bill drafted by Sen. Maria Cantwell may change both the nature of the debate and its outcome.  AUTHOR:  David Morris.  DATE:  October 2, 2009.  The Bill download itself is located at the following LINK.

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    [x] LECTURE TITLE: “Is Prosperity Incompatible With Posterity?” SPEAKER: Denis Hayes, Bullitt Foundation. DATE: 3/4/10.

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    TITLE: Lautenberg bill seeks to overhaul U.S. chemical laws.  AUTHOR: By Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post Staff Writer.  DATE:  April 15, 2010.

    After a year of working with environmental groups, government regulators and the chemical industry, a leading advocate for chemical regulation has devised a plan to remake the nation’s chemical laws — a 34-year-old set of regulations that all players agree is outmoded and ineffective.

    The plan, contained in legislation that Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is set to file Thursday, would require manufacturers to prove the safety of chemicals before they enter the marketplace. That would be a significant departure from current laws, which allow chemicals to be used unless the federal government can prove they cause harm to health or the environment.

    “We’re saying those who make the chemicals — and there are 700 new ones that come to market each year — ought to be responsible for testing them first before they’re released to the public, instead of having the EPA play detective to search and try to find problems,” Lautenberg said.

    The bill would also mandate that manufacturers submit health and safety data to the EPA for 84,000 chemicals in use. The agency would review the information to determine whether the chemicals are safe enough to remain on the market.

    Under current laws, the government has little or no information about the risks of most chemicals in use. The government cannot act unless a chemical poses a health threat, but the EPA cannot force companies to provide data that show risks.

    The hurdles are so high that the government has been unable to ban asbestos, widely acknowledged as a likely carcinogen and barred in more than 30 countries. The bill would make it significantly easier for the EPA to restrict or ban chemicals that are known hazards.

    EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson called the legislation a major “step forward.”

    Lautenberg has tried twice to revamp the chemical laws but this time has support from the White House, environmentalists and, most importantly, the chemical industry.

    “We’re certainly not going to be an obstruction,” said Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council. “We are committed to being constructively engaged in their efforts to move this legislation forward.”

    Linda Fisher, vice president of safety, health and the environment at DuPont, called the bill “a good starting point.”

    The chemical industry has long insisted that the 1976 federal laws governing toxic chemicals, the Toxic Substances Control Act, has been working well. But growing concerns have sparked legislatures to ban or restrict a number of controversial chemicals, creating a patchwork of restrictions and a regulatory nightmare for companies. The manufacturers want one set of federal standards to establish some predictability and reassure the public that everyday products are safe, Dooley said.

    The chemical industry remains wary about some aspects of the bill yet to be clearly defined, such as how regulators will determine whether a chemical is “safe.”

    “That is going to be one of the most critical issues, in terms of finding consensus between consumers, environmental groups, industry and the policy makers: What is the appropriate risk standard?” Dooley said.

    No Republican senators have signed on to Lautenberg’s bill, but his staff said they did not expect strong GOP opposition. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) is expected to file companion legislation.

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