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Republicans Seeking Regulatory Reform Threaten Public Health & Environmental Protection

At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, Republican members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee argued in favor of eliminating important public health safeguards under the auspices of supporting small business owners and working families, supposedly without compromising consumer safety and environmental protection as the committee chair, Sen. Thune (R-SD) stated in his opening comments. However, the ongoing efforts of the Republican caucus attempting to repeal vital protections like the Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule through the Congressional Review Act proves the majority has little  interest in protecting the environment or public health.

The five person panel of experts consulted by the committee for the hearing was unfortunately stacked in favor of deregulation with only one panelist, Professor Lisa Heinzerling of Georgetown Law, defending the necessity of health and safety safeguards. The rest of the panel consisted of the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, the CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, a representative from the National Association of Manufacturers, and a research fellow from the Hoover Institution, a think tank funded by ExxonMobil and the Koch-affiliated Bradley Foundation.

Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, a trade organization that works to limit government regulations on the tech industry, argued that regulation stifles innovation and opportunity for small business owners. However, the committee did not put small business owners on the panel or read witness testimony from small business owners at the hearing. There was no mention of any specific regulations that threatened small business owners. When asked to provide data on job loss due to harmful regulations, the panel was unable to do so.

This hearing was a clear example of lawmakers taking advantage of everyday Americans to advance a corporate agenda. Instead of bringing any proof of the alleged difficulties of small business owners to comply with federal regulations, the panelists took advantage of the opportunity of the Senate platform to advocate for corporate interests such as offshore drilling. If Senate Republicans were truly interested in helping average Americans, then they would not advocate on behalf of opening up Arctic drilling given the record of previous environmental damage by the oil and gas industry, most notably the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico both of which polluted the ocean and caused major damage to local communities and fishing industries. As Professor Heinzerling noted several times throughout the hearing, the significant benefits of regulation were consistently overlooked by the panel. The American public depends on regulation for the safe consumption of food and water, to safeguard us from dangerous products and to protect us from corporate greed that threatens the environment and our financial institutions.

Sen. Thune repeatedly referenced President Obama’s call for reducing regulations at the 2012 State of the Union Address in an effort to call for bipartisan support. However, Republicans seek to do far more than just eliminate outdated and ineffective rules, instead they seek to dismantle crucial regulatory policies for public health, consumer safety and environmental protection.

In the sole claim of a specific federal regulatory policy supposedly burdening working Americans, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) criticized the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan arguing that such “over-regulation” disproportionately impacts minority communities, citing a report by the National Black Chamber of Commerce. This report was later debunked by Martin Luther King III in a Washington Post op-ed accusing the chamber, which receives funding from ExxonMobil, of misleading minority communities.

Senator Cruz’s argument ignores the health ramifications of fossil fuel power plants in minority communities. The Clean Power Plan would have curbed emissions  from coal plants which are predominantly located in low-income, minority communities, minimizing the disproportionate exposure to harmful pollutants that the communities face. A study by Environmental Health Perspectives Journal found that living in proximity to fossil fuel power plants increases one’s risk for respiratory disease by at least 11 percent. Additionally, African Americans accounted for 17.8 percent of asthma and 13.7 percent of Acute Respiratory Illness (ARI) hospitalizations even though they were only 8.7 percent of the total participants in the study. Thus, low-income, African American communities face a disproportionate risk of respiratory disease and must deal with the ramifications of lost work and decreased quality of life due to poor health and the costs of hospitalization and medicine. In addition to providing health benefits, the Clean Power Plan provided economic benefits for consumers as more efficient energy usage would lower electricity bills and the expansion of renewable energy would create job growth.

The debate over the Clean Power Plan is exactly why it is so critical that we appropriately evaluate the benefits of regulatory policy as we examine the costs. The benefits of the Clean Power Plan were lost on Senator Cruz but would not be lost on the minority communities who live in conditions where they are not afforded the right to a clean and safe environment.

It is the obligation of the federal government to protect the public from the efforts of big corporations to pollute the air we breathe and poison the water we drink. However, Senate Republicans seeking to weaken public safeguards are failing that obligation and failing the American people by advancing a corporate agenda, under the guise of support for small business owners, and directly threatening public health and safety.