Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Climate of Conflict

While many readers may already be familiar with the rough and tumble of politics, it is helpful to remind one another of the climate of conflict that so often surrounds the making of law. Here is a brief description of a legislative hearing from a few years ago concerning a toxic substance recognized for the past thousand years or so. What does lead have to do with fossil fuels?  And who is Randy Kanouse? Read on..

What the [expletive deleted] is going on here?”  The comment directed at me was delivered by one of Californiaʻs state legislators serving on my committee: the Senateʻs Environmental Quality Committee.
Dashing back from another legislative meeting occurring simultaneously elsewhere in the capitol, the returning member was visibly stunned to find a fellow legislator’s bill on the verge of death. Returning my gaze, the legislator whose bill was near-death glared at me. Yet, for the audience of more than 100 people in the hearing room as well as countless others watching the closed circuit broadcast, it surely appeared as though the legislator and I were engaged in convivial conversation. As a matter of practice, I regularly moved about the dais as legislators entered from other committee meetings to let them know what was going on in the hearing. This situation, however, was a distinctly unfriendly chat.  

Temperatures flared, and not simply owing to the capitolʻs unrelenting August heat. The hearing now took an unscripted turn. The legislator returning to the crowded room clearly thought his vote would be key to the passage of yet another piece of legislation sponsored by a group of industries. The measure before us, however, needed more than his vote. Placing my hand over the microphone, I provided a cursory review; “We are hearing Senator Calderonʻs bill at the moment. And, as you can see, the other members on the committee have serious questions regarding the merits of his bill.” “Questions,” vastly understated what everyone in the hearing room sensed: the author and his bill were in trouble. And by the look on Senator Calderonʻs face, he too recognized that his cherished bill balanced on the precipice of defeat.

The six other members of the legislative committee sitting on either side already recognized the questionable nature of the measure before us. While we were often engaged in clarifying recently enacted legislation, the committee members agreed with my written review: the bill before us was purposely designed to unravel legislation signed into law only a year before. This recently enacted law established a new, more stringent California standard for lead in faucets - a hazardous material recognized for more than 2000 years. By further restricting lead, the new law promised to protect not only millions of Californians, but quite likely propel new national standards benefiting tens of millions of others.
Vigorously opposed by a group of multinational corporations, their corporate lobbyists actively pursued the reversal of a stringent California standard. The manufacturers were outraged when, during the previous year, their opposition to such a new limit had failed. They were now back in my committee, laboring to overturn the new, more restrictive standard. Sitting alongside the senator who was presenting their bill, the corporate lobbyists looked anxiously to the chair of the committee to save them from certain defeat.

Asking a group of legislators who had just last year instituted the new standard to reverse themselves struck many as an act of desperation. Even though a group of global manufacturers stood behind Senator Calderonʻs proposal to reverse an upgraded legal standard -- heralded by advocates for children, environmental health and others hoping to eliminate another substance recognized as unsafe at any level -- now captured the attention of everyone in the hearing room. As implausible as it appeared to outsiders, industry regularly demonstrated the sad truth for too many state legislatures across the nation. Given enough money, corporate lobbyists could package legislation extending the shelf-life of an inherently hazardous item as a compelling option. Generations of corporate lobbyists patiently explained to their clients that they confronted a common and powerful obstacle in Californiaʻs Legislature, the public interest lobby.

Senator Calderon, seeing that his bill was failing, quickly proposed an amendment that would establish an alternative standard, based on the review by an independent scientific body. Several members of the committee sought my thoughts on the proposed “independent body” offered by Senator Calderon. This body had been identified in academic literature as dominated by manufacturing firms, with little track record in achieving protections for public or worker health. At this point a key member of the committee, who would soon assume the leadership of the Senate, shook his head in disappointment, concluding, “Well...I don’t see how we can support this bill.”

As the votes were recorded by the committee secretary, it was evident that the attempt to dismantle the new California lead standard was going to fail. During the shuffle of the next legislator coming forward to present her bill, Senator Calderon approached the dais, signaling that he wanted a private word with me. If it was not apparent to others in the audience, the bill’s author bore no mistake about what had just happened. Standing across from me, he expressed his obvious displeasure in a somber tone, borrowed from the Godfather. “You killed my bill... I’m not going to forget what you’ve done.” With that, he turned and walked out of the hearing room. Much as I reveled in fights with those legislators who appeared to be serving as corporate handmaidens, the defeat of this bill had instead been largely brought about by a group of public interest lobbyists. 

With multiple proposals to be heard, we turned to the next bill on the agenda. My colleagues on the committee faced me, awaiting my reaction to the disgruntled state senator. Nodding his way, I met the knowing gaze of one particular lobbyist, Randy Kanouse, who had largely orchestrated the defeat of this bill. For his part, Randy was always quick to assign such victories to the actions of many others, including two fellow advocates typically present at the capitol: Martha Argüello, with Physicians for Social Responsibility and Bill Magavern, then representing the Sierra Club. Other public interest advocates not present in the hearing room that day had engaged similar struggles, extending over many decades.


  1. Replies
    1. And you are absolutely correct with crediting - the all involved! As we know about many such issues, including this one, there is often an army of folks making all of this happen. It is one of my refrains…likely appearing in tomorrowʻs post. Thanks Gary!