Public Supports Consumer and Environmental Protections, Polls Show

Americans overwhelmingly support government protection of the environment and consumers, a series of new polls shows. The findings come as efforts to enforce and expand regulation face increasingly hostile rhetoric from conservatives and industry representatives in Washington.

A new Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll (National Journal poll) found wide public support for legislation intended to limit climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions and to reform U.S. energy policy. Sixty-five percent of poll respondents said they would support a bill that would cap greenhouse gas emissions. The same poll, conducted from July 29 to Aug. 1, found that 78 percent favor requiring utilities to produce more energy from renewable sources.

The House passed a climate and energy bill in June 2009. Senators have introduced several climate bills, but prospects for passage in 2010 appear dim.

Polling also indicates that small business owners support climate and energy legislation, though not as strongly as the public at large. Three business groups, Small Business Majority, American Businesses for Clean Energy, and We Can Lead, commissioned a poll released in July that surveyed small business owners about their views on climate and energy legislation and its impact on the economy. Fifty percent of the respondents said they support legislation, while 42 percent said they oppose it. Many small businesses are optimistic about legislation's potential effects: "Forty-eight percent think an energy and climate bill would either not affect their business or would help it, while 45 percent think a bill would hurt their business," the groups said. Of the respondents, 79 percent own companies of five or fewer employees.

Like the climate and energy bill, a bill aimed at improving food safety by enhancing the powers of the Food and Drug Administration passed the House in 2009 but has stalled in the Senate. Americans support food safety legislation four to one, according to a poll released by Consumers Union on July 12. When asked, "How would you describe your support for Congress passing this legislation immediately?" 43 percent of respondents said they supported the legislation, and an additional 37 percent said they strongly supported it. Nine percent said they opposed the bill, and only seven percent said they strongly opposed the legislation.

Public opinion surrounding the BP oil spill disaster reveals a desire for government involvement, as well. Although 72 percent favor expanded oil and gas exploration, according to the National Journal poll, a majority of Americans – and 58 percent according to a June CNN poll – support the Obama administration's temporary ban on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico ordered in response to the spill. Generally, 69 percent favor stricter regulation of oil drilling, according to the National Journal poll.

In addition to the oil industry, Americans support greater regulation for a variety of sectors that figure prominently in national politics. According to a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a majority of Americans favors more regulation of Wall Street firms (57 percent), "big corporations" (53 percent), and the health insurance industry (52 percent). Only a small fraction favors less regulation – 27 percent for the health insurance industry, 21 percent for big corporations, and 16 percent for Wall Street, according to the poll.

A July CNN poll turned up similar results: 55 percent said they approved of government regulation of businesses generally, while 45 percent disapproved.

The polls' findings stand in sharp contrast to criticisms hurled by conservatives and industry representatives who have demonized regulation and characterized nearly any form of government intervention as a threat to job creation or stability. Their complaints have grown louder in recent weeks as the critics attempt to prey on unrest over the struggling economy and ailing job market.

The critics have also turned "uncertainty" into the new watchword of the anti-regulatory campaign. Amid news from the St. Louis Federal Reserve that corporate profits hit $1.37 trillion in the first quarter – an all-time high – and businesses are sitting on about $2 trillion in cash reserves, business leaders are saying uncertainty over the stability of the economy is preventing them from using reserves to invest and add new hires. Regulation and pending legislation are contributing to the uncertainty, they claim.

Washington business groups have been leading the chorus of those linking regulation to economic instability and making the case for regulatory roll backs. Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, a coalition of executives from major U.S. companies, submitted to the White House lists of regulations and other policies they want rescinded or weakened.

"Many regulations and legislation – both existing and proposed – exacerbate the uncertainty created by today's volatile economic environment," the Business Roundtable wrote in a letter to White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Peter Orszag. "Virtually every new regulation has an impact on recovery, competitiveness and job creation."

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) has been another vocal critic of regulation. On July 16, Boehner endorsed a one-year moratorium on most new regulation. A moratorium "sends a wonderful signal to the private sector that they'll have some breathing room," he said. No such moratorium is being seriously contemplated, either in Congress or the executive branch.

Boehner is also one of 69 co-sponsors of H.R. 3765, the Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2009 (REINS Act), a bill that would require Congress to vote on and approve every new agency rule estimated to have an economic impact (either costs or benefits) of $100 million or more. The act would prohibit agencies from enforcing rules that do not garner congressional approval.

In a July 21 opinion column written for the Huffington Post, OMB Watch Executive Director Gary D. Bass called the attacks on regulation "shameful." The attacks are particularly insensitive so soon after national tragedies such as the BP oil spill disaster and the April explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, Bass wrote.

In response to the campaign against regulation, including the industry hit lists submitted to the Obama administration, more than 600 people wrote to President Obama urging him to stand up for public protections. OMB Watch organized the letter-writing campaign.

"I recognize that the federal government has significant responsibilities to ensure that the water I drink is free from harmful chemicals; that the food I eat is safe; that the air I breathe is clean; that the products we buy for our children aren't contaminated by heavy metals; and that our workplaces are safe, healthy places to earn a living," many of the letters say.

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