Corporate Money Fuels Attack on Public Protections

3/22/2011

An ongoing attack on the nation's regulatory safety net is being led by lawmakers with deep financial ties to the corporations and lobbying groups that often complain about federal standards, campaign finance data show.

The energy industry and other big polluters donated millions of dollars to the campaigns of top congressional Republicans in advance of the current legislative assault on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other environmental regulators. Other anti-regulatory interests have also donated large sums to campaign war chests, potentially influencing lawmakers' willingness to target other consumer, education, and health agencies.

In 2009 and 2010, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, received more than $259,000 in contributions from electric and gas utilities and the oil and gas industry, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), available at maplight.org.

Upton is sponsoring a bill that would strip the EPA of its authority to regulate carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. The bill is supported by many in the energy industry who are fearful of new and pending EPA standards that will require them to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Upton's committee voted to approve the bill on March 15.

The Energy and Commerce Committee also approved legislation that would undo a new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standard intended to preserve a free and open Internet. The FCC's net neutrality rule would prevent carriers from interfering with the speed or ease with which customers access web content. Major service providers AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon Communications, companies that could benefit financially if the net neutrality rule is lifted, donated $46,000 to Upton in 2009 and 2010, according to CRP data. Overall, these four companies and their employees donated more than $1 million to committee members in 2009 and 2010.

Investigations have shown that congressional criticism of the Department of Education over pending standards for for-profit colleges can be linked to campaign contributions from the for-profit college industry. Both ProPublica and The Huffington Post have detailed how campaign contributions have coincided with efforts by House members to convince the department not to go forward with the standards.

Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has held four hearings in 2011 in which he and other panel members have criticized education regulations. According to CRP data, Kline received $61,400 from education interest groups, including significant contributions from Education Management Corporation and Apollo Group, owners of the University of Phoenix.

The attack on public protections, which has been waged largely from the House side of Capitol Hill, began in earnest in December 2010 when incoming chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), asked corporate lobbyists to build a hit list of existing and proposed regulations that they wanted the new Congress to halt or undo. Issa received more than 100 responses from industries objecting to a variety of health, safety, environmental, and financial requirements.

Since the 112th Congress has convened, House committees have held scores of hearings on regulatory policy, regularly conducting ten or more in a single week. House Republicans have also introduced numerous bills designed to restrain agencies from setting standards that protect the public, including the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, introduced by Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY), which would require congressional approval of all major rules.