Monday, March 27, 2006

Congress May Eliminate State Privacy Protection Rules

The Congress is at it again. In a previous post I pointed out that a bill had passed the U. S. House of Representatives that would preempt, or override, state regulations on feed safety that were more restrictive than Federal law.

Now a bill has been adopted by the House Financial Services Committee that would eliminate many state laws that allow consumers to place a freeze on their credit records to prevent unauthorized access.

The bill, H.R. 3997, introduced by Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) would eliminate state laws that are stricter than the federal law on consumer notification on security breeches and allowing consumers to freeze their credit files.

According to critics Susanna Montezemolo of Consumers Union and Ed Mierzwinski of US PIRG, eleven states have stricter notification standards than the federal bill, and eight states have freeze laws stronger than those in the bill: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, and North Carolina. All of these laws would be eliminated under the measure.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Chertoff and Chemical Plant Security

An editorial in today’s New York Times criticized Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, for his lack of leadership in the area of chemical plant security. Chemical plants are one of the ways terrorists can attack the U. S. For example, an attack on a chlorine plant, releasing significant amounts of poison gas, could endanger thousands.

OSHA has regulations designed to reduce the chance of an accidental release of hazardous chemicals or of an explosion. However, these regulations are designed to protect against accidents, not deliberate acts. Many chemical plants have security plans and methods to protect against deliberate acts that would endanger the public. However, many plants do not have such protections, and the federal government has been slow to issue regulations to require them.

In a speech to leaders of the chemical industry, Mr. Chertoff supported the concept of federal preemption of state regulations of chemical plants if the federal regulations were weaker.

According to the New York Times, "Mr. Chertoff seemed perfectly content to defer on key security matters to an industry that contributes heavily to Republican campaigns but has proved to be dangerously unwilling to take public safety seriously."

Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, a Republican and a Democrat, have introduced a bill that would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop safety standards that would be mandatory for all chemical plants. This legislation is needed. But action will still be required by Homeland Security to write and enforce the regulations.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Corporate Offenders Not Paying Fines

The government regulatory agencies enforce regulations by imposing fines on those who violate the regulations. This ability to fine violators puts teeth into the rules.

Therefore if the violators can escape the fines, the regulations have no teeth. According to an Associate Press story in the Washington Post Sunday, corporations are stiffing the government on fines. Some examples: A $3 million fine to a pipeline company after a deadly fire was reduced by 92 percent. Coal firms were charged more than $1.3 million for deadly violations. The penalties are largely unpaid.

According to the AP, criminals and civil offenders owe the government more than $35 billion in fines, based on Justice Department figures, more than five times the amount owed a decade ago. This is enough to cover the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security.

The ability to impose penalties is the heart of the ability of the government to protect workers and other citizens. When the government does not effectively collect the money owed, it is not only cheating taxpayers but is giving up its ability to protect us.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

U. S. House Passes Bill to Prevent States from Regulating Food Safety Labels

Usually Republicans support the concept of Federalism, the reliance of states to make decisions about the welfare of their residents. Sometimes known as "states rights", the idea is that individual states should make their own rules based on the preferences of their citizens rather than rely on the Federal government.

That is, unless the Republicans in Congress don’t like the actions states are taking.

A bill passed by the U. S. House of Representatives, H.R. 4167, introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) would "preempt", or overrule, all state regulations about food safety, including labeling requirements to warn consumers of about dangers to the food supply, including carcinogenic and toxic substances in food.

The bill passed the House on Wednesday on a largely party line vote (92% of Republicans, 35% of Democrats voting for the bill)

Not only does Congressman Rogers want to limit the federal government’s food safety labeling regulations, he does not want any state to require food safety warnings not approved by the federal government.

Story in Washington Post

Monday, March 06, 2006

AT&T, BellSouth Tout Competition and then Announce Merger

On March 1, 2006, both AT&T and BellSouth submitted their comments to the FCC's rulemaking proceeding concerning consumer protection for broadband customers. As in the earlier round of comments, both companies opposed broadband consumer protection regulations because, they said, the competition would prevent any need for the protection. (I submitted comments on the same day in favor of consumer protection regulations).

AT&T commented that "In light of this robust, head-to-head competition, the Commission should stand firmly by its well-established policy of letting 'the marketplace, not the government, pick the winners and losers among new services.'"

BellSouth commented that "The BIA [Broadband Internet Access] services market is competitive; it adequately protects consumers from the concerns contemplated in the Notice [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking]".

Four days after the two companies told the FCC about robust competition, they announced their intent to merge. This merger would create a massive telecommunications company that would supply long distance, local telephone, cell phone, and broadband wireless (DSL) service. Cingular Wireless, which will be part of the new company, had recently acquired the wireless business of AT&T.

Not only will the new company be the largest provider of broadband Internet service and the largest cell phone carrier, it will provide nearly half of all telephone lines.

Will we still have "robust, head-to-head competition"?