Sunday, July 18, 2004

Chris Cox & Tim Russert: Educate Yourselves!

One would think that if you were chairman of the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, you would know about the status of chemical plant security legislation and how the chemical industry feels about it. But not if you're representative Chris Cox (R-CA).
And you'd think if you were the moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, you'd know when a Congressman is either terribly uninformed or BS-ing you.  But not if you're Tim Russert.
Russert had Cox on Meet the Press today along with Stephen Flynn, author of America the Vulnerable:  How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us From Terrorism. The theme of Flynn's book was summed up in this paragraph that Russert read: 
From water and food supplies; refineries, energy grids, and pipelines; bridges, tunnels, trains, trucks, and cargo containers; to the cyber backbone that underpins the information age in which we live, the measures we have been cobbling together are hardly fit to deter amateur thieves, vandals, and hackers, never mind determined terrorists. 
Russert asked Cox why his committee hasn't moved on chemical plant security, given the seriousness of the problem as layed out in Flynn's book: 
It is crucial that we dramatically improve security of the chemical industry.  Our enemies do not need to smuggle chemical weapons across our borders.  ...Chemical facilities and the thousands of tons of chemicals that move each day around the U.S. on trucks, trains, and barges could be targeted by terrorists to devastating effect.  All told, there are about 15,000 chemical plants, refineries, and other sites in the U.S. that store large quantities of hazardous materials on their property. ...  There are no federal laws that establish minimum security standards at chemical facilities.
After assuring the television audience that "President Bush is very keen on making sure that there are homeland security regulations of chemical plants," Cox went into an incredibly obtuse, eye-glazing monologue about "jurisdictional problems," turf battles, conflicting authorization authority, etc., etc. tjat were holding up the legislation. Russert then asked why Congress couldn't  "set aside these turf fights and jurisdictional elbowing and focus on chemical plants and their security immediately?" and whether it might have something to do with the "$6.5 million in soft money between 2000 and 2002" that had been given to committee members.

Cox responded, incredibly:

This turf problem is near and dear to my heart and I want to address it.  But I want to go back first to the little bullet you had about the chemical industry.  The chemical industry supports, as far as I know, the Markey legislation, the Corzine legislation, what the White House is proposing.  The chemical industry is in support of regulations so that there are standards across the board so that we can protect plants. So to whomever they're donating goes either credit or demerit for that support. 

Now, as anyone half-way familiar with these issues knows, the American Chemical Council spent millions to kill the Corzine bill after it had passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, unanimously, 19-0 last year. According to the National Journal, “Then the council ramped up its opposition arguing that the bill’s regulatory regime was overzealous and so potentially costly that it risked driving American companies out of business. By the time the full Senate took up the bill in September, most of the committee’s Republicans agreed with the industry’s message. The GOP members backtracked on their earlier vote and the measure died.” (National Journal 4/26/03, p. 1310-1311)

The Bush Administration, which was considering having EPA issue chemical security regulations under its existing Clean Air Act authority, then “abandoned efforts to impose tough new security regulations on the chemical industry to protect against possible terrorist attacks, following months of intense internal fighting within the administration and resistance from the industry....The decision marks a victory for major chemical manufacturers who have argued they can improve security without regulatory intervention.”
Corzine's legislation would call on the chemical industry to use inherently safer technologies such as substituting a less hazardous chemical for a more hazardous chemical.  Corzine's bill came partially in response to numerous newspaper reports and a 60 Minutes investigation that showed how easy it is for reporters to roam unmolested around chemical plants that store deadly chemicals capable of wiping out entire cities. A Government Accounting Office study also found that despite government rhetoric, "the extent of security preparedness at U.S. chemical facilities is unknown."

Instead, the administration is supporting a much weaker bill proposed by Senator James Inhoffe (R-OK)that would give all authority for chemical plant security to the Department of Homeland Security and would simply let chemical companies follow voluntary guidelines -- mostly focused on higher fences and more armed guards -- issued by the American Chemistry Council.

All of this must have been much too complicated for Russert and his crack team of researchers (who certainly had not been reading Confined Space) because he then let Cox blather on for a few more minutes about jurisdictional issues and authorization minutiae. Cox was never challenged on the truthfulness of his statement.

Flynn came much closer to the truth when Russert asked him whether he thought the chemical industry wanted regulation:
Well, I think it's when you get down to the nitty-gritty that they want some standards but they're very interested in there being very minimal oversight. There are fears for costs. The chemical industry's under tremendous pressure in the international marketplace to basically stay alive, and they're very fearful that security will cost a lot.
And his book lays out some of the political background:
Part of the problem is because the private sector owns and operates so much of this material.  And the pervasive wisdom is that the market should take care of itself.  But this is a very difficult thing for the market to do by itself. It needs standards, and it needs to know they're uniformly enforced, so the good guys aren't at a competitive disadvantage for people who pay footloose and fancy free.  That requires a government capacity to set requirements with private sector and partnership and to have the means to provide oversight that we really don't have much capability in right now to deal with.
We all know that politicians will lie, distort, divert and obfuscate when asked an uncomfortable questions, but it's hard to know how the American public is supposed to inform itself about these life-and-death issues when the "toughest" moderator of the country's supposedly premiere political television program can't even bother to study the facts.