Winners and losers in TSCA reform battle

By Josh Kurtz | 06/09/2016 07:26 AM EDT

The Toxic Substances Control Act became law in 1976, and it feels as if members of Congress have been trying to reform it ever since.

That’s an exaggeration, of course.

But the fact is, reform efforts have been underway for several years but always came crashing to a halt. This time, in a rarity for modern-day Capitol Hill, a genuine compromise came to pass, against steep odds.

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Now the legislation is headed to President Obama’s desk, and a spokesman said he would sign it, making the chemicals law the last major 1970s-era national environmental initiative to be updated.

The bill was such a classic compromise that nobody got everything they wanted. Still, some clear winners emerged — and also a few losers.

The winners

  • Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.): The prime sponsor of the House version of the TSCA reform legislation, Shimkus burnished his reputation as a legislative tactician by steering the bill through — and racking up more than 400 votes for it. That’s helpful momentum for Shimkus as he bids to become chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the next Congress.
  • The chemicals industry: Companies had to make some concessions as the process moved along but got the regulatory certainty they craved and brakes on states that want to supersede federal law.
  • Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.): Senate co-sponsor of the legislation — and son of the late, legendary Interior Secretary Stewart Udall — took early slings and arrows for joining with industry and Republicans but remained steadfast in his insistence that TSCA reform would help small states that struggle to regulate chemicals. He also succeeded in keeping some environmental groups at the table when negotiations turned tense.
  • Regular order: The two chambers of Congress pass significantly divergent visions of TSCA reform, then work out their differences. What a concept. Still, critics would point out lawmakers opted for direct negotiations rather than a formal conference committee.
  • Most environmental groups: They had to swallow a lot, but they stuck with the process and held firm on certain principles. No environmental leader would say the bill is perfect, but they proved they can be bipartisan players and work with industry.
  • U.S. EPA: Holy cow, Republicans and industry want more federal regulation? Doesn’t happen very often — and doesn’t carry over to other environmental fights. But EPA leaders can be forgiven if they bask in this a little bit.
  • Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.): The chairman and ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee played their roles masterfully. Boxer hated the bill as originally written, but thanks to her unprecedented self-described "journey," came to be a player in the negotiations when it counted. Inhofe was a hard-liner when he needed to be and a conciliator at other times.
  • Sen. David Vitter (R-La.): After some disappointments and embarrassments, Vitter gets to end his 18-year congressional career on a bipartisan high note as co-sponsor of the TSCA bill. A nice credential if he seeks lobbying work when he leaves Congress at year’s end.
  • Jessica Alba: The actress, model and purveyor of clothing made with nontoxic chemicals became a key lobbyist for TSCA reform.
  • Frank Lautenberg: What the late New Jersey Democratic senator wasn’t quite able to accomplish in life, he was able to achieve through the work of his ex-colleagues, invoking his good name. Now a landmark environmental measure will bear his name. Probably better than having the train station in Secaucus, N.J., named for you.

The losers

  • Environmental Working Group: One green group that held out — and took it on the chin.
  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): His objections to the legislation, publicly articulated minutes before final Senate passage, were certainly legitimate. But the way he almost derailed the compromise, claiming he hadn’t had time to read the bill, didn’t add up when it had been out on the streets for several months.
  • Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.): Saw their top rival for the Energy and Commerce Committee gavel, Shimkus, win a major victory. See above.

Somewhere in between

  • States that wanted to preserve the right to enact tougher chemicals laws: The bill improved, in their view, from the way it was originally written, but some still weren’t happy. Just yesterday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) issued a statement saying he was "disappointed that the amended Toxics Substances Control Act passed by Congress expands federal preemption, creating new obstacles to the ability of New York and other states to protect their citizens from the hazards of toxic chemicals."
  • Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.): The Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member entered the fray late, announcing his opposition in the eleventh hour. Still, he remained vigilant during final negotiations and won at least a few concessions.
  • Cosmetics companies: There was some talk early on that their products would be regulated by EPA as well as the Food and Drug Administration under the legislation, but that’s no longer the case. Instead, only the chemicals used in the products continue to be policed by EPA. But there are still questions about how the pre-emption rules in the bill will be implemented, and that makes the industry a little uneasy. Similarly, it is not clear how the enactment of TSCA reform will affect legislation by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) reforming the regulation of the personal care products industry.
  • Advocates for regulating asbestos: They like the bill because they say it will finally allow EPA to ban asbestos in the United States. Advocates however, worry it could still take several years for EPA to go through the regulatory process to do so.

Reporters George Cahlink, Jeremy P. Jacobs, Geof Koss, Manuel Quiñones and Arianna Skibell contributed.

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