Statement of Tyson Slocum, Energy Program Director, Public Citizen

Note: Today, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is introducing legislation to protect communities from oil train disasters. The U.S. Department of Transportation proposed safety standards in July 2014, but those rules are being delayed by a U.S. Office of Management and Budget review and by continuing opposition from the oil and railroad industries.

A string of recent oil train disasters underscores the critical need for significant improvements in the way we ship oil on rails. For instance, we need sturdier rail cars, oil that is less combustible, more secure operations and more inspections. A bill introduced today by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell would help prevent future oil train disasters by requiring these and other safety measures.

The bill sets a federal safety standard for the more volatile tar sands and shale crude oil. It requires rail cars to be protected by steel shells that are more puncture-resistant as well as thermal jackets that increase fire resistance, and an immediate halt to the transport of oil in any rail car that hasn’t been reinforced.

The bill also mandates more safety inspections of rail carriers and oil producers, heftier penalties for noncompliance and improved spill response plans, and requires that state and local authorities be notified before oil trains move through their communities.

The past few weeks have seen a wave of oil train derailments and explosions in the United States and Canada, which threaten ecosystems, public health and human lives with fireballs that rage for days. Oil trains are bombs on wheels, and when they pass through big cities like Chicago, Houston or Minneapolis, they put hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives in danger.

But based on the behavior of the industry, it seems that executives are more focused on their company coffers. Earlier this month, at the very moment firefighters were risking their lives to hold back the flames from an exploded train in Illinois, oil and railroad companies were meeting with federal officials to lobby for lower safety standards. In public, industry groups were calling for stronger safeguards, but privately they were still trying to undermine critical safeguards.

We can’t let oil and railroad companies make their own rules. Sen. Cantwell’s bill wouldn’t let them, and instead would – rightly – put public safety ahead of corporate profits.

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Statement of Christine Hines, Consumer and Civil Justice Counsel, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

Public Citizen applauds the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) for adding consumer narratives to its online complaint database. Now, consumers will be able to report to the public firsthand their experiences with financial services and products, allowing others to read the shared details.

This follows in the tradition of a number of other government agencies, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission, that operate public complaint databases to help people report on and research product risks.

Consumer narratives will add to the CFPB’s already robust complaint database, which has handled more than half a million complaints. Firsthand experiences will provide a fuller picture of incidents in the marketplace and help others make more informed decisions when evaluating financial services, including services such as mortgages, auto loans and other lending products.

Consumers’ own words also will help to uncover patterns of potentially predatory conduct in financial services, such as unlawful debt collection practices. The quicker the risks to the public interest are exposed, the less likely it is that more members of the public will be harmed by the unfair or abusive practices. We expect that under its policy, the bureau will operate the complaint database while safeguarding consumers’ personal information.

Statement of Susan Harley, Deputy Director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

Note: On Wednesday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus unveiled an alternative to the U.S. House of Representatives’ budget resolution put forward by U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and approved today by the GOP-controlled House Budget Committee.  

The People’s Budget proposed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus is a better alternative to the budget resolution adopted today by the U.S. House Budget Committee. By focusing on sound solutions like fairer corporate taxation as a way to pay for spending on essential government services such as improved health care and public financing of elections, the People’s Budget would put America on a clearer path to a more just and democratic society.

Whereas it’s not likely to garner majority support in the McConnell-Boehner, corporate-controlled 114th Congress, it surely would win majority support from the American people.

The People’s Budget would institute a tax on Wall Street trades, known as a financial transaction tax, which is a commonsense way to both grow substantial revenue and calm markets now plagued with volatile high-frequency trading.

The People’s Budget also calls for important changes to our tax code such as ending deferral on foreign-made profits of U.S. companies and limiting the ability of companies to invert and reincorporate in a foreign jurisdiction as a way to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

Public Citizen applauds the Congressional Progressive Caucus for identifying new ways to bolster government programs and urges all members of the House to vote in favor of this alternative budget proposal.

Yesterday, House and Senate Republicans revealed a new tactic in their war against the Clean Power Plan, the EPA proposal to curb carbon pollution: Pass legislation permitting states to “just say no” to the rule, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been urging the states to do. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) each released legislation that would let states opt out of the Clean Power Plan, purportedly to protect their electricity consumers (among other reasons).

Is this the same party that just proposed slashing support for public housing, food assistance, and home energy bills? Yes, and it hasn’t suddenly decided to help struggling American families. These new pieces of legislation are every bit as anti-consumer.

Whitfield released a “discussion draft” that would exempt a state  from the Clean Power Plan if the governor determines that complying would “have a significant adverse effect” on ratepayers by raising electricity rates or on reliability of the state’s electricity grid. Portman filed an amendment to the Senate budget resolution suggesting that states should be allowed to opt out of the Clean Power Plan if, among other things “ a Governor or legislative body of a State determines that the requirements of that section [section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, which authorizes the Clean Power Plan] would increase retail electricity prices with a disproportionate impact on low-income or fixed-income households . . . .”*

Both pieces of legislation reflect major misunderstandings of the Clean Power Plan, and they would harm consumers considerably. Here’s why:

The Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers by mitigating climate change. Climate change poses a severe threat to American consumers, and in particular to vulnerable populations. A few of the most salient risks include:

  • higher taxes and market prices to cover the costs of widespread damage to infrastructure and other property from extreme weather;
  • diminished quality and higher prices for food and water, heightening food insecurity for America’s most vulnerable populations; and
  • increased illness and disease from extreme heat events, reduced air quality, and increased food-borne, water-borne, and insect-borne pathogens.

The Clean Power Plan will benefit consumers by curbing carbon pollution, which will mitigate these harms. The Plan will also reduce other forms of pollution from the nation’s dirtiest power plants, like emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. As a result, it will boost public health further, reducing both premature deaths and non-fatal cardiovascular disease.

The Clean Power Plan will lower consumers’ electricity bills. The Clean Power Plan should lower consumer costs, not raise them, because it will spur improvements in energy efficiency. Although electricity prices may rise modestly under the Plan, consumers will use less electricity, resulting in lower bills overall. The EPA projects that the Plan will lower consumer bills by 8.4 percent by 2030. A Public Citizen analysis suggests that the EPA  estimate is conservative, overestimating the cost of efficiency programs and underestimating how much progress the states can make on efficiency. Consumer costs are likely to decline by even more than the agency projects.

States should serve their consumers and protect vulnerable populations. If these consumer benefits don’t materialize, then it is likely the states, not the EPA, that will bear responsibility. The states can take a lead role in implementing the Clean Power Plan by writing their own compliance plans. State policymakers can choose to implement the Plan in a manner that benefits or harms consumers and protects or burdens vulnerable populations. State governments have a responsibility to serve their citizens and protect vulnerable communities. The amendment is wrong to excuse the states from those duties and suggest that the responsibility for harming consumers lies with section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, a statute that protects the public by safeguarding our health.

What’s really going on here is a familiar story: Congressional Republicans are using consumer protection as an excuse to advance the interests of fossil-fuel companies. Undermining the Clean Power Plan would harm American families, making them sicker and raising the cost of basic household needs like food and electricity.

*Technically, the Portman amendment would permit the Chairman of the Budget Committee to revise the allocations in the budget resolution in light of later legislation permitting states to opt out of the Clean Power Plan for the reasons above. Members of Congress often discuss these matters as if they actually make law rather than just contemplate hypothetical future legislation.

 

flickr-by-kristihn_a-(Meringue-Bake-Shop)-votingExpect quite the spectacle next week in the Corporate Congress. On Thursday and Friday, the U.S. Senate is holding a “vote-o-rama,” in which senators will weigh in on hundreds of budget amendments introduced in rapid succession. Although the chances of any of these making it into law are slim to none, lawmakers of both parties view the vote-o-rama as a chance to promote their agendas and force members on the other side of the aisle to take uncomfortable votes.

We don’t know exactly what amendments will be considered, but we expect them to include attacks on the regulatory system, gifts to the fossil fuel industry, attempts to block citizen access to the courts (a favorite proposal of big business interests), measures to water down Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms and more.

As always, Public Citizen’s team of Congress watchers will be following the action.

In addition, the concentrated attack on the regulatory system continues. Generally, pro-corporate lawmakers are putting forth measures that would undermine the standards and safeguards that protect American workers and families from harm. The measures would bury federal agencies under a host of new procedural and analytical requirements, and paralyze their work, as well as jeopardize our food, air, water, homes, workplaces and pocketbooks.

To that end, at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 24, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee will consider several dangerous regulatory measures:

o H.R. 348, the “Responsibly And Professionally Invigorating Development (RAPID) Act of 2015,” which would make it easier for companies to acquire permit approvals without addressing critical environmental, health and safety concerns. This would increase the likelihood of future disasters like the BP spill;
o H.R. 712, the “Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act of 2015,” which would weaken the ability of citizens to prod federal regulatory agencies to follow the law; and
o H.R. 1155, the “Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome (SCRUB) Act of 2015,” which would establish a new bureaucracy empowered to dismantle long-established public health and safety standards.

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