Business for DemocracyNext week, lawmakers in the Corporate Congress will step up their attacks on public safeguards, training their fire on the rulemaking process – despite the fact that Americans support regulations and increased enforcement. Polling continues to show that Americans want clean air and water, safe food and workplaces, and a sound financial system – and trust federal agencies to ensure it. The attack bills are described below.

Of course, that’s not all that the McConnell-Boehner Congress is attacking next week. Lawmakers also will go after the IRS at 2 p.m. Wednesday, with yet another hearing on whether the agency targets nonprofits. This one is by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts. It just highlights the need for clear rules defining political activity for nonprofits.

Regulatory attack bills

On Wednesday, the full U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act. Sources say the Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome (SCRUB) Act might be attached as a rider. Here are details:

• The REINS Act (H.R. 427) would require all new economically significant regulations – in other words, the big-ticket public protections that provide the most health, safety, environmental and economic benefits – to be approved by both chambers of Congress before taking effect. If both chambers were unable to approve a major rule within a 70-day window, the rule would be tabled until the next congressional session. In effect, the reigning dysfunction in Congress would endanger any important new regulation, no matter how non-controversial.

• The SCRUB Act (H.R. 1155) would establish a new retrospective review commission to achieve a 15 percent reduction in the cumulative cost of public safeguards. This would result in the repeal of critical health, safety and environmental standards – even when the benefits are significant, far outweigh the costs, and are supported by the public. In addition, the bill would require any agency issuing a new regulation to remove an existing regulation of equal or greater cost.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will mark up (PDF) the Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act (S. 1607). This would strip agencies such as the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of their independence, which now insulates them from the distorting influence of political pressure. Another bill likely to be marked up is the Regulatory Improvement Act (S. 708), which would establish a commission to modify, consolidate and repeal existing regulations to reduce costs for business while ignoring the tremendous benefits these safeguards provide to the American people and the many outdated rules that should be strengthened.

On the committee’s work schedule but likely will be removed, sources say, are the Early Participation in Regulations Act (S. 1820), which would require agencies to issue advance notices of their rules – a redundant and often unnecessary step that would prevent agencies from responding swiftly to urgent public health and safety threats, and the Smarter Regulations Through Advance Planning and Review Act (S. 1817), which would force agencies to adopt a one-sided approach to retrospective review that seeks only to weaken or repeal rules instead of strengthening them. The bill would require agencies to continually review existing public protections, rather than spending time developing and issuing new ones.

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HOUSTON – Public Citizen, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, the Texas Campaign for the Environment and the Healthy Port Communities Coalition co-hosted a neighborhood meeting in Houston’s East End on June 27 to discuss the dangers posed by oil trains passing through the community and call for stronger safeguards.

Between two and six million gallons of highly volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale pass through the Houston metropolitan area every week in fundamentally unsafe rail cars. A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) report found than an oil train explosion in a major population center like Houston could cost billions of dollars in property damage and injure or kill thousands of people.

About 30 people attended the June 27 meeting including Texas state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, state Rep. Maria Delgado, a representative from state Rep. Carol Alvorado’s office and several public affairs representatives from the rail industry. The meeting was held at the Immaculate Conception Church on Harrisburg Street.

To gain deeper insight into the problems oil and chemical trains pose to East End residents, Public Citizen interviewed Bridgette Murray, a local resident who attended the meeting.

PC: Start by telling us a little about yourself and your community.

BM: I am a registered nurse, spending my adult life taking care of other individuals, and I am now the primary caretaker for my elderly mother.

My family has had a presence in the Pleasantville area since 1957. I returned to the community 20 years ago because I felt safe returning to the neighborhood surrounded by individuals that were like my family in many regards. I chose to live in a community that contributed to my upbringing and support, and I remain active in my community to ensure a better quality of life.

Pleasantville continues to be a community with 78 percent occupancy by actual home owners. In spite of the industrial build up on our periphery, we have easy access to both I-10 and 610 freeways. This is a landlocked community with three rail line entrances (two of them Union Pacific).

PC: Why are you worried about trains in your neighborhood? How do these trains put your community at risk?

BM: The trains have been with us from the beginning. But we recently experienced an incident of a Union Pacific train that blocked all three entrance and exit points to the community for nearly one hour, and the other exit was under construction. If we encounter a train derailment in our community, over 3,000 individuals will not be able to safely evacuate.

In addition, a significant percentage of our community is within one mile of the blast zone. My own home is within half a mile. Not only are we concerned about the oil trains, but the use of rail for other hazardous materials left unattended on the rail line without notification is a growing concern.

PC: What changes would you like to see to fix these problems?

BM: Let’s start with improved safety. How often are rail lines inspected and serviced? I am aware that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is recommending changes to the cars used for transporting oil, but this is after the fact. In the agency’s own words, “Accidents demonstrate that the DOT-111 tank cars moving these flammable liquids are not up to the task.”

It is my understanding from prior events, allowing the trains to burn out is the standard approach. In our community that will mean death for many. Implementation of NTSB’s recommended preventative measures should be considered critical.

The community successfully petitioned and partnered with The Metropolitan Organization of Houston for another entrance without rail to improve access for emergency vehicles. But much more needs to be done.

Again, in NTSB’s own words: “Preventing tragedies similar to Lac-Mégantic and Cherry Valley will require a systems approach that keeps trains from derailing, especially in sensitive areas, and preserves tank car integrity if a derailment occurs. Adequate emergency preparedness is also crucial. One of the first steps industry can take is to appropriately plan and select routes to minimize the amount of hazardous materials that travel through highly populated areas.”

PC: If you could send a message to the train, oil and chemical companies, what would you tell them?

BM: Safety always seems to follow the profit margin. Lives do matter and residents living near rail lines should be protected. The increase in oil trains should also come with increased safety in how, where and when oil is transported. There should be more community outreach to high-risk areas regarding emergency evacuation training and education.

Living near the Port of Houston, I accept the risk that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security speaks of regarding terrorist threats, but I do not accept as reasonable a sanctioned domestic threat of oil train cars when there is something that can be done to improve the situation. My only request is that industry demonstrates some respect for middle and lower income America.

PC: Thank you for sharing your story.

BM: Thank you for keeping the public informed about this major issue.

By Emma Stockton

Last week, CVS Health did the right thing and cut ties with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This announcement came in the wake of a series of New York Times articles revealing the Chamber’s role in a global lobbying effort to combat anti-smoking policies. CVS Health’s decision to leave the Chamber follows its 2014 decision to end sales of all tobacco products. CVS senior vice president David Palombi has explained, “CVS Health’s purpose is to help people on their path to better health, and we fundamentally believe tobacco use is in direct conflict with this purpose.”

The NYT series also highlighted a common misconception, that the Chamber of Commerce is part of the U.S. government. This confusion is not unfounded: U.S. government officials often affiliate with international divisions of the Chamber. For example, in Estonia, the U.S. ambassador serves as the honorary president of AmCham Estonia.

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Note: The live online conversation will begin on Wednesday, July 22, at 3 p.m. Eastern.

At Public Citizen, we fight to keep the courthouse doors open to consumers harmed by Big Business.

But we’re up against a threat to our core democratic values – forced arbitration, a pernicious legal tactic developed by corporations to keep you out of the court and out of their way.

Buried in everyday contracts for products, services and jobs is fine print that says if you are harmed, you can’t go to court – which means you can’t go before an impartial judge or jury. Instead, you must settle your dispute in a private arbitration proceeding or not at all. That’s why we’re working with the Alliance for Justice and other allies to spread the word about forced arbitration and discuss ways to fight back.

Join the online conversation today at 3 p.m. Eastern to see Christine Hines, consumer and civil justice counsel for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, discuss this critical issue with other experts.

Watch the live conversation here (the video stream will start at 3 p.m. on July 22):

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Flickr photo by watchingfrogsboilThe McConnell-Boehner Corporate Congress next week will go after an agency that has, in its four short years of existence, done great things for consumers: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It is just one of several public interest attacks next week that are on Public Citizen’s radar screen:

•    The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution is scheduled to hold a hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday, July 23, about the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This is another opening for Wall Street’s backers in Congress to attack the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s structure and power. But they will be attacking an agency that, in just four years, has helped 17 million Americans obtain remedies for financial harm and has recovered $10.1 billion in consumer relief from companies that engaged in wrongdoing. If anything, the agency needs to be strengthened, not weakened.

•    The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate are set to convene a conference committee on a customs and enforcement bill that could weaken a strong anti-trafficking provision in last month’s Fast Track bill. The backdrop: The State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report, which is expected to be released next week, may include an “upgrade” of Malaysia’s Tier 3 Ranking. Particularly in the wake of the horrific revelations of mass graves of human trafficking victims in Malaysia, this raises serious concerns for anti-trafficking advocates in the U.S. and Malaysia, as well as members of Congress who included a provision in the Fast Track bill that would bar Malaysia and other Tier 3 countries with the worst human trafficking record from entering into Fast Track trade deals. Nineteen senators and more than 160 representatives sent bipartisan letters this week to Secretary of State John Kerry, expressing concern over any manipulation of the TiP report to further the administration’s goals to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes Malaysia.

•    Before going into August recess – possibly even next week – the House will vote on the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act (S. 226 and H.R. 427). This bad bill would require all new economically significant regulations – in other words, the big-ticket public protections that provide the most health, safety, environmental and economic benefits – to be approved by both chambers of Congress before taking effect. If both chambers were unable to approve a major rule within a 70-day window, the rule would not take effect and would be tabled until the next congressional session. In effect, the reigning dysfunction in Congress would endanger any important new regulation, no matter how uncontroversial it might be.

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