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Heather Taylor’s Blog

How the sausage gets made -- Mercury Export Bill passes Congress

Heather Taylor

Posted October 1, 2008 in U.S. Law and Policy

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Here is a little good news from the world of Congress in a very scary week:  Congress finally passed S. 906, the Mercury Export Ban bill.  As my colleague, Susan Keane so eloquently explained:

 "Neither mercury or the fish we eat recognize federal boundaries.  Passage of this legislation banning the export of mercury is a great victory for Americans' health and the health of people in the developing world. It will curb the flow of mercury into global commerce, keeping it out of our tuna and other fish. Combined with a similar ban adopted just last week by the European Union, this law will significantly reduce the amount of mercury use and pollution from the developing world."

The bill, which bans the export of mercury, would keep this neurotoxin in the U.S. under the protection of the Department of Energy.  This is an incredible victory that will ultimately mean less mercury in our atmosphere - and more importantly, less mercury in our bodies. As a mom who has breastfed two children, this battle has been a bit personal to me.  The process for passing this bill hasn't always been pretty but I think it provides us with a few lessons for the future that we should reflect upon.   

1.  MEDIA IS KEY

My esteemed former colleagues at NRDC have been working on mercury issues for ages.  We have been actively involved in international stakeholder groups and in the court trying to reduce mercury exposure.  After incredible articles about the lifecycle of mercury by the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune, our Public Health team knew that it was time to turn up the heat on Congress.   These articles added momentum to our fight and refreshed the public outcry for action.

2.  FIND THE RIGHT CHAMPION WHO WILL BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER

 We found our House champion in Congressman Tom Allen (D-ME).  Rep. Allen worked with Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) from the House Energy and Commerce committee, Ranking Republican Joe Barton (R-TX), then-Chairman of the Environment and Hazardous Materials subcommittee Al Wynn (D-MD), and Ranking Subcommittee Republican John Shimkus (R-IL), to bring together very strange bedfellows in search of common ground:  NRDC, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the National Mining Association (NMA) and the Environmental Council of States (ECOS). 

Our champions in the Senate were Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).  Here is another example of picking the right champions.  Senator Murkowski could have played the Presidential politics game and shied away from publicly supporting an Obama bill but she knew that this bill was too important and couldn't be allowed to flounder.  She not only supported this bill but she helped convince other Republicans that issues associated with public health must transcend Presidential politics.  She was certainly a bright light in this entire process.

3.  HAVE AN OPEN MIND BUT KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

One doesn't need to have been associated with my world for very long to know that NRDC and ECOS rarely agree with ACC and NMA.  In fact, usually the only thing we do agree upon is that we don't agree on most issues.  But the House Members pushed and we responded.  There were round the clock negotiations with teams from each group, Members of Congress, and federal officials.  At the end of the day, we all had to give up something but the ultimate bill achieved the original goal - it banned the export of mercury from the U.S. and set forth plans to create a federal repository for this junk where it would be kept safe and out of our atmosphere.  

4.  BE PATIENT, 5.  BE PERSISTENT, and 6.  POLITICS IS STILL LOCAL

 The bill went through House hearings and a committee markup in October 2007.  It was considered and passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on November 13, 2007.  After that, it was sent to the Senate, where it sat on life support for months.

In most cases - especially in this Congress - a bill like this one would have died a quiet death.  However, our strange new coalition wasn't about to let that happen.  NRDC, ACC, and NMA called upon our supporters to encourage a hearing in the Senate on this important bill.  One of NRDC's affiliate groups, the Los Angeles Leadership Council, mobilized and helped educate Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the bill.  Their energy helped inspired Senator Boxer to take up this bill and ultimately reminded our coalition that constituents are always the most important voice in any fight.  

We worked with Senator Obama, Senator Murkowski, and Senator Boxer to schedule a hearing on May 13, 2008.  A committee markup was held on July 31, 2008.  Following the markup, Congress left for a month long vacation from DC.

When they returned, Congress was faced with an economy in the dumps, energy prices through the roof, no hope of getting any spending bills passed, and a bitterly partisan membership.  It looked like our tiny but important bill would be lost under the pressure of so many national emergencies.  To top things off, some in the Senate expressed concerns about the ultimate location of the eventual repository.  I think our entire team started to lose hope. 

As a final Hail Mary play, our coalition once again came together to try and alleviate the new concerns expressed by the Senate.  We knew that we couldn't compete with the issues of the day but our hope was that if we had enough support, we could at least receive consideration.  After a new round of negotiations, we once again found common ground without sacrificing the ultimate goal of the bill. 

We worked with Senator Obama, Senator Murkowski, Senator Boxer and our coalition partners and the Senate finally approved the bill on September 26th.  Because of the changes, the House was forced to consider the bill again.

Certain Members started to see this bill as a train on the move.  As you can guess, they wanted their bills to tag along.  Despite efforts to tie the mercury bill to other, more controversial pieces of legislation, the bill was finally approved by the House of Representatives yesterday (9/29/08) at 8:15am by a vote of 393-5.  Now we await the President's signature.  Let's keep our fingers crossed.

7.  CONSIDER WHAT IS NEXT

This bill will do a lot of good in the world for public health.  But it has the potential to do even more good than currently realized. When the bill was considered by the House, Congressman Sullivan (R-OK) said, "This bill is proof that people of all political stripes can come together for the common good. It is a shining example of how our process in Congress can work and work well if given the chance." 

I couldn't agree more, Rep. Sullivan.  This bill opened the door to new relationships.  While we will not always (or even usually) agree with our new friends at the ACC or NMA, maybe we can at least have a conversation in the future and see where this newfound goodwill can take us. 

Have a good day!

Heather

 

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Comments

Nichelle StrzepekOct 3 2008 09:45 PM

Heather,

From one breastfeeding mom to another, thank you for the work you (and your colleagues) do day in and day out, fighting for the protection of our kids. And thank you for helping to educate others.

Nichelle

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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