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Back to the Future: The Cost of Delay

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Two decades ago Congress directed the EPA to expand the Clean Air Act to control mercury, arsenic, chromium and other air toxic emissions from power plants. Now the House Republicans are willing to shut down the Federal government to make sure that it still doesn't happen.

After twenty years of delay from unrelenting coal and oil industry pressure, the EPA, under a Supreme Court-ordered deadline, proposed regulations to reduce the toxic pollutants -- poisons that are well known to cause cancer, childhood asthma, bronchitis, and cognitive damage to infants and fetuses.

The shutdown threat is just the latest play in a long campaign of delay and distraction by polluting industries to prevent clean air regulations. They've got powerful allies now. The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives acting in service to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Koch brothers and an army of industry lobbyists has produced a stream of legislative proposals to defund regulatory agencies, weaken the law and ultimately unshackle industry from rules that get in their way.

Republican Darrel Issa, Chairperson of the Government Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent letters to 170 industry associations asking for marching orders of which so-called "job-killing" regulations they wanted out of the way. Responses from a who's who of toxic emitters including the American Chemistry Council, the Council of Industrial Boiler Owners, the American Gas Association, American Iron and Steel Institute and other utility industry lobbies targeted the Clean Air Act-mandated rules on power plants.

Their rhetoric is familiar, formulaic -- and false. Every rule that asks industry to clean up after themselves or protect the public from the poisons they leave behind is branded a "job killer." It's a good slogan for scaring elected officials, but it's bad science and just plain wrong. Their real goal isn't truth, it's kill the rule, or at least delay it as long as possible.

Delay, while it may be good for profits, is bad for public health -- real bad. The cost of delaying the mercury and toxic air rules in the past two decades has been too many lives lost, heart attacks, and cases of childhood disease as well as substantial damage to economic productivity. The EPA estimates that reducing them would annually save 17,000 lives, and prevent 120,000 asthma attacks, 15,000 cases of bronchitis and 850,000 missed work days.

The delay and distract playbook isn't new. And the tragic costs of delay aren't either.

Thirty years ago, in 1981, Vice President George HW Bush, leading the Task Force on Regulatory Relief, previewed Issa's program and sent letters to hundreds of corporations and industry associations asking which regulations they wanted to repeal or block. Based on 350 letters and meetings with dozens of representatives from corporate America, the Reagan administration unleashed a torrent of action against existing rules and inaction towards proposed rules.

The Reagan Administration, like the House Republicans today, were responding to newly energized business lobbies. In 1981, The Chamber of Commerce launched the Regulatory Action Network to fight the Federal Government's efforts to protect the public by newly created agencies like the EPA, OSHA and the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration and emboldened older agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. A Chamber brochure asked "Is excessive government regulation strangulating your business?" The Chamber claimed that "government regulation now threatened to squeeze the very life out of our free enterprise system."

After meeting with powerful industry associations such as the Air Transport Association, Chemical Manufacturers Association, American Mining Congress, National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce, the VP's task force created a regulatory "hit list" that included many environmental standards, workplace safety rules, food and drug labeling requirements, and other public health protections we take for granted today. Acting on industry's claims that these safeguards would harm the industry and create job loss, federal agencies were instructed to delay, suspend and stop regulations wherever possible.

The administration, responding to public backlash and sometimes court ordered action, failed to stop final implementation of many of the rules on this list but they created delay that cost lives and hardship for many. Here are several examples:

At the request of infant formula manufacturers including Mead Johnson, the FDA delayed, then substantially weakened, rules implementing the Infant Formula Act (1980) that passed following the discovery that some manufacturers were producing formula lacking "essential nutrients." Congress ultimately enacted new legislation in 1986 forcing the FDA's hand and required manufacturers to ensure that formula contained all essential nutrients. The cost of delay: thousands of children were exposed to the defective formula lacking vitamin B-6, a nutrient essential for child development.

At the urging of the auto industry, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) Director Raymond Peck, overruling senior agency staff, ended in 1981 the twelve-year effort to require either air bags or automatically closing seat belts in automobiles. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with a lower court ruling that rescinding the rule was "arbitrary and capricious" and forced NHTSA to reissue the regulation in 1986. Cost of delay: at least 40,000 deaths and millions of injuries.

After meeting with the Aspirin Foundation, the Task Force rejected scientist's advice that warning labels be required on aspirin after they learned about the correlation between aspirin and children developing Reyes Syndrome, a condition with high fatality rates. In 1982 the administration withdrew proposed labeling regulations. Ultimately, legislation requiring warning labels introduced in the Senate in 1985 and upcoming mid-term elections created enough pressure to force FDA to implement temporary labeling requirements in June 1986 that were made permanent in 1988. The cost of delay: between 1982 and 1986 approximately 3,000 children developed Reye's syndrome -- about one third died and many of the surviving children suffered brain damage.

Industry lobbies and the administration also delayed rules requiring tampon manufacturers to display warnings about Toxic Shock Syndrome, requiring drug manufacturers to include "patient package inserts" with instructions for proper use and side effects of popular prescription drugs; banning carcinogenic food coloring; setting limits for health care workers exposed to ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing toxic sterilant in hospitals; establishing "grain dust" standards for mills and grain elevators to prevent explosions and fires; and mandating a phase-out of asbestos production and use.

During the 1980's public backlash and bold, aggressive Democratic leadership pushed back against industry's assault on common sense health, safety and environmental protections. In the end, Reagan's deregulators only were able to delay -- not stop -- progress. Delays, unfortunately, that cost lives, sickened children and poisoned our air and water.

The business lobby's campaign of delay and distraction in the 1980's created unacceptable human and economic costs. The safeguards they want to block today will no doubt be the common sense standards of tomorrow if President Obama and leaders in the House and Senate -- some of whom fought this assault on health thirty years ago -- make clear that this is about our lives and our future. They stopped the industry's campaign of delay in the 1980s. They need to do it again with the aggressive leadership that America's workers, children and the environment deserve.

Donald Cohen is the Director of the Cry Wolf Project that exposes misleading corporate rhetoric about the economy, regulation and government. He is also the Chair of In The Public Interest, a national resource center on Privatization. He sits on the Boards of Green for All and the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

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