Democrats Chip Away at 40 Years of Radical Pro-Business Legislation

Last updated on February 8th, 2013 at 01:30 pm

This morning, on a day when a category one hurricane is rushing into the Gulf, a Senate committee voted to eliminate limits on liability that oil companies would face for damages stemming from offshore spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. The President signaled his support for higher or no caps on liability for oil companies earlier this month. While it may seem like this is just another meaningless vote, a closer examination reveals a huge paradigm shift under way, and it would be wise for voters to pay attention.

Democrats Try to Protect Fisherman in the Gulf

Democrats Try to Protect Fisherman in the Gulf

The Senate Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted to eliminate liability caps for oil companies. The change, if approved (it still needs to be debated next month) would apply retroactively to BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Reuters reports:

“The oil spill prompted Democrats to move quickly to eliminate the liability limits. Initially, they were pushing for a $10 billion cap, but were convinced by the Gulf of Mexico spill that a more ambitious approach was necessary.

Senate Republicans blocked earlier efforts to pass this legislation in the full Senate using a fast-track procedure.”

The Republicans have had a hard time deciding where they stand on this issue, but they keep coming out as supporters of BP rather than of the people of the Gulf, as best exemplified with Joe Barton’s apology to BP over the President’s request that they set aside twenty billion dollars in an escrow account for victims.

The President was most likely trying to avoid allowing the fate of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez victims to befall the residents impacted by Deepwater Horizon. In the years after the Valdez, Exxon Mobil attacked the award on several fronts, using both maritime law and the federal Clean Water Act, to argue that they were exempt from punitive damages. The US Supreme Court’s eventual ruling slashed their recovery of punitive damages from about $75,000 apiece to $15,000.

It should be noted that in 2005, the oil and gas industries were exempted from the Clean Water Act under the Bush administration.

The Exxon Valdez victims (32,677 fishermen and other interests ) fought Exxon for over 17 years in court, only to have the court awarded damages (1994) cut significantly due to a Supreme Court decision written by Justice David Souter, who said that the $5 billion punitive award against Exxon for spilling millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989 was excessive.

Justice Souter wrote that since Exxon Valdez “was caused by recklessness, rather than intentional wrongdoing,” Exxon should not be held to paying more than compensation for actual economic harm suffered. This ruling was seen as a huge victory for business.

In 2008, Sarah Palin, then Governor of Alaska, spoke about how disappointed she was over the ruling; however, later when running for VP, she claimed she was a part of holding the oil companies responsible and took credit for bringing Exxon to heel to the people, a stance which embittered Alaskans who still feel the sting of the Supreme Court decision.

“The president supports removing caps on liability for oil companies engaged in offshore drilling,” said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt. “Oil companies should have every incentive to maximize safety and arbitrary caps on liability create a disincentive to achieve that goal.”

When one looks at all of the many assaults on the people’s rights and the environment under the Republican/conservative driven legislation over the majority of the last 40 years, one simply can’t argue that both parties are the same. This small step to remove a liability cap would be a small but important change in the way America does business.

Obama and the Democrats are sending a message to big business that (it should be noted that while Republicans tout “small business owners” as their raison d’être, their actual policies support and enable big business and corporate America) they are not being given a free pass and will be held accountable for their actions. Being held accountable hopefully leads to a company being more inclined to promote safety, which in turn is good for workers and the environment. Accountability is a free market principle, which makes the Republicans desire to give business a pass again a rather remarkable radicalization and bastardization of their own philosophy.

In small, unseen ways, the party you vote for affects your life, the environment, safety standards, the values of social justice, etc every day. While I have often been in favor of balance between the two parties, as I believe in the intrinsic value of rigorous debate, this country is suffering from the implementation of extreme, radical Right values and desperately needs several years of Democratic rule in order to recover some semblance of balance. Being pro-business does not have to necessarily imply that we careen off the cliff into radical, unbalanced legislation such as we have seen over most of the last 40 years, and as became a bitter parody of free market principles left unchecked and unacknowledged by their own party under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

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Sarah Jones

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