Asbestos afire

The big fight on Capitol Hill last week wasn’t the war, Iran’s nukes or cartoons

While a battle raged over asbestos in the nation’s capital, Advance Installations Inc. of Sparks worked on an asbestos removal job.

While a battle raged over asbestos in the nation’s capital, Advance Installations Inc. of Sparks worked on an asbestos removal job.

Photo By David Robert

A furious fight over asbestos took place in Washington last week, sparked by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s efforts to derail a change in the way asbestos claims are handled.

Business supporters in Congress, hearing constant complaints from corporations about asbestos litigation, have tried repeatedly to draft a bill that would do something about asbestos litigation. The latest bill, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, would remove the issue from the courts and set up a federal trust fund in the Department of Labor. Defendant corporations would be assessed $90 billion for the trust fund, insurers about $46 billion, and existing trust funds would be raided for $4 billion.

Victims would then have to apply administratively for compensation. Specter calls his bill the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act (FAIR).

Asbestos, a fiber mineral widely used in insulation and other products for many years, causes a form of cancer called mesothelioma (and other maladies) when its minute fibers are inhaled. The symptoms sometimes show up long after the exposure. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against asbestos makers and companies who subjected their workers to exposure.

In Senate floor remarks last week, Reid said the only reason the asbestos issue is getting such high level attention is that 13 “companies spent $144.5 million in two years lobbying to get it here.” Further, he said, “They were able to buy their way into the Senate, paying for a bunch of lobbyists.”

Specter, apprehensive that two years of work on the bill could go for naught, responded angrily: “To accuse us of being the pawns of the lobbyists is—is—is beyond slander, beyond insult. It’s beyond outrage.”

The Nevada Republican Party sent out a mailing to press offices headlined, “IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, REID SEEKS TO BLOCK JUSTICE FOR ASBESTOS VICTIMS.” The mailing linked journalists to a New York Times editorial critical of Reid. (The Republicans may not have read the editorial closely, because it also criticized Reid for failing “to muster the gumption to try to stop the nomination of a right-wing ideologue to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.") The state GOP may wish it had never sent out that mailing—their own John Ensign took action against the bill, and it was Republicans who caused Specter his worst problems.

If the Nevada GOP leaders thought this was another liberal-versus-conservative battle, or a business-versus-labor fight, they were mistaken. It didn’t follow those lines.

Opponents and supporters were all over the map, with Democrats and unions opposing Reid and Republicans and corporations supporting him. The United Auto Workers supports the bill, but the AFL-CIO opposes it. Reid’s fellow Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy is a cosponsor of the bill, but Republican John Cornyn opposes it. Exxon Mobil opposes it, but USG Corp supports it.

The measure seemed to tap something visceral in Reid—"I can’t stand this legislation"—and made some Democrats wish he could bring the same intensity of feeling to more important issues, like the war.

Supporters of the measure said it would protect businesses from lawsuits and relieve the burden on courts. “If this becomes law, it will become a tremendous boom to the economy,” Specter said. “The point that I continually make is, ‘If somebody’s got a better bill, let’s hear it. If somebody’s got a better bill, I’ll support it.'”

But opponents said Specter should not be trying to pass any bill, that Congress should let the courts work, and that corporations need to be penalized, not protected. Nancy Rossi, whose husband died of suspected asbestos-related mesothelioma (he worked one summer in a warehouse loading asbestos-laced building materials), wrote in the Hartford Courant, “This bill would take the right to seek justice from a sufferer of asbestos cancer and hand over that victim to an asbestos-fund administrator, who would hear the case and assign an arbitrary award. This would do nothing to punish the asbestos industry; indeed, this protects the companies.”

George Bush weighed in on Feb. 2, speaking at 3M corporate headquarters in Minnesota: “And speaking about legal reform, you talk to people that take risk, one of the things they tell you about is these lawsuits hamper strong investment. If we want to be competitive, we’ve got to have balance in our legal system. Congress has the chance to send a signal again—we did a pretty good job on class-action lawsuits, but now they got a chance to do something on asbestos. And there’s a bill going to be moving out of the Senate. It’s time to send a clear message to investors and markets and employees that we’ve got to have a legal system in regards to asbestos that’s fair to those who have actually been harmed, and reasonable for those who need to pay.”

As the week wore on, Republicans became more and more unhappy with the bill. The GOP’s John Cornyn unsuccessfully tried to amend the measure, and Nevada Republican John Ensign filed a parliamentary objection that the trust-fund bill violates Congress’ budget spending cap. Supporters failed on a 58-41 vote Tuesday to override Ensign’s objection.

Then Bush backed off. The White House sent Specter a letter filled with reservations about the bill.

One news release attacking Reid was headlined, “Asbestos Victims Fuming Over Senate Minority Leader’s Hypocrisy; Legislation to Provide Fair Compensation for Asbestos Victims Stalled.” However, the release had little to do with victims. It was issued by a group called the Seniors Coalition, which may not have much to do with seniors, either—StealthPac, a Washington Web page that provides information on the real backers behind the positive sounding names of political groups, says the “purported” Seniors Coalition was formed by right-wing consultant Richard Viguerie from his legendary mailing lists and is partly funded by pharmaceutical companies.

A better indication of victims’ sentiments came when five victims’ organizations opposed the bill. Victims kept calling the measure a corporate bailout.

One particular aspect of the battle seemed to sum up the decline of the Democratic Party. Once a voice of economic populism, the party has become more corporate-oriented, its leaders terrified of being accused of class warfare. So in the asbestos fight, it was conservatives who made the populist argument that Democrats shunned. William F. Buckley Jr.'s magazine National Review said the bill would dump the financial burdens of large corporations onto smaller companies:

“With the insurance industry largely opposed to the bill, the business community divided, and the plaintiffs’ bar against it … the FAIR Act has produced the richest lobbying contracts in recent Washington memory. It is also, unfortunately, just about the worst bill money can buy.

“Critics in the insurance industry point out that the eligibility criteria adopted in the bill are weaker than the criteria established by many state reforms. The bill creates payment amounts for victims based on nine claim levels. Because some claimants could establish their eligibility simply by showing that they had undergone occupational exposure to asbestos, critics fear that thousands of people with the most dubious claims would seek payments.

“Smaller corporations, many of them well insured against asbestos claims and subject to liabilities as small as $75 million ("small,” that is, by asbestos standards), oppose the bill because they could wind up paying about the same yearly amount as GE. The bill would abrogate their insurance agreements and would require them to make payments far larger than they would with the benefit of their insurance. These smaller companies have their own army of lobbyists deployed to argue about the unfair cost-shifting they believe the bill represents.”

In Reno, the Asbestos Alliance is running television commercials on at least three stations—KTVN, KCRL, and KAME—asking people to write to Nevada senators and ask them to vote for the bill. One spot says the legislation offers “fast, fair compensation for victims. … It’s time the Senate got the job done.”