Now that the one-year anniversary of the Gulf oil disaster has passed, and with a great deal of media attention, it might be good to see what Congress has actually done to help get relief for coastal residents. Unfortunately, there’s not much to report on that front insofar as activity in Congress is concerned. The failure on the part of our lawmakers to take the necessary action to help the states on the Gulf Coast is quite apparent and is inexcusable. I fully expected Congress to address the multitude of issues related to the spill and pass the needed bills. Sadly, nothing has been done to address the major issues raised by the oil spill. These issues include industry liability limits, regulatory reform, coastal restoration, and the broader issues of energy policy.
There may be legitimate reasons for this Congressional inactivity, but I seriously doubt it. There are the usual suspects of partisan gridlock and political gamesmanship in what was, in 2010, a Congressional election year. The Republican takeover of the House changed the playing field in Congress which was a major victory for the powerful oil industry. It’s quite apparent that the big oil companies are still calling the shots in Congress.
The recommendations of the National Oil Spill Commission, named by President Obama, calling for an overhaul of the government and industry approach to safety, have been virtually ignored. The Commission called for the creation of an independent safety agency within the Interior Department, a steep increase in the oil spill liability limit, and a big boost in spending for regulation, much of it paid for by fees on industry. No action has been taken on this last proposal, embraced by the Obama Administration and by many in Congress. The 101 spill-related bills introduced in the previous Congress have been cut down to 15 so far this year. That’s not a good sign.
It appears that all of the talk about legislative reform relating to the oil spill has now been forgotten. The effort largely rests now with a single bill sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. While his bill would enact many of the Oil Spill Commission’s recommendations, I am told that the bill’s chances of passing are slim to none and we all know how that usually winds up.
Instead of dealing with the real issues, the Republicans who took over the House have focused their legislative efforts on reducing the regulations they claim hurt economic growth and job creation. The lack of effective regulations played a major role in the disaster and now the GOP wants even fewer regulations. It’s very clear that the job of the powerful oil lobbyists for the industry has been made much easier.
At the height of public concern with the spill last year, the House, with the Democrats then in control, passed a bill that would set new standards for blowout preventers – the safety device that the oil spill commission says failed in the Macondo disaster – as well as increased fines for violations of federal regulations, and new ethics rules for federal regulators. Interestingly, the Senate, which was also controlled by Democrats, never took up the bill. According by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the 60 votes needed for passage couldn’t be obtained because of opposition coming from most Republicans and from some Democrats.
Even a bill that would have increased liability for spills beyond the current $75 million limit and would have directed most of the BP fine and penalty money to coastal restoration, never made it to the floor during the Senate’s lame-duck session after the election. That session was consumed with legislation to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy for two years. The many issues facing the coastal states were virtually ignored.
Legislation to give the BP Oil Spill Commission the same subpoena power given other investigative commissions couldn’t even get to the floor. Another bill would have allowed families of the 11 rig workers killed in the explosion to collect damages comparable to those allowed for land-based accidents. Even that bill failed. In that case, a single Senator objected, preventing the bill from getting a vote. This effectively denied justice to the families of the 11 victims.
As a recent poll mentioned below indicates, legislation to direct 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalty money to coastal restoration seems to have broad support. Gulf lawmakers, the Obama Administration, and the Oil Spill Commission (which made it one of its foremost recommendations) are all pushing the bill. But even with that support, the bill still hasn’t been voted on. That’s sort of hard to figure out.
Unfortunately, a year after the spill, time is not on the side of the few in Congress who really want the needed legislation passed. It hasn’t helped that the news media has been diverted to other happenings around the world and has moved away from covering the Gulf disaster. This has made the job of BP (which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on public relations) and others who oppose the legislation very easy. I would like to single out Rep. Jo Bonner for his hard work on behalf of the people in his Congressional district. He has worked tirelessly trying to get BP and Ken Feinberg to do the right thing and he is pushing hard to make something happen in Washington. Hopefully, the public will put more pressure on other members of Congress. If that happens, things in Washington will change for the better.
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