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Loosening Gridlock

Chemical industry hopes Congressional Election will spur more bipartisan collaboration

by Glenn Hess
October 25, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 43

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

With public opinion polls and political pundits predicting big Republican gains in both chambers of Congress in next week’s midterm elections, chemical industry officials in the nation’s capital are hopeful that a more even balance of power between the two major parties will result in more cooperation on divisive issues such as chemical safety, facility security, and energy policy.

“Typically, when the margins are narrow, there often is compromise,” says Peter A. Molinaro, vice president of federal and state government affairs at Dow Chemical. “Historically, that is what has happened.”

Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by a 257-178 margin in the House of Representatives, having gained 29 seats in the 2006 election and 25 seats in 2008. Consequently, Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats to win back control of the lower chamber. In the Senate, Democrats have a 57-41 majority, plus two independents who caucus with the Democrats. A turnover of 10 seats would tip majority status into Republican hands.

Governing parties typically lose seats in the congressional midterm elections. But Democratic losses could be unusually large this year because President Barack Obama has lost public support as he has struggled with the weak economy, high unemployment, and the country’s general anti-Washington mood.

“Our priorities going into the next Congress will not change” regardless of the outcome of the election, says Scott Jensen, communications director at the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the trade association that represents the country’s largest chemical manufacturers. The industry’s top advocacy issues next year will remain modernization of the nation’s chemical safety regulations, climate-change legislation, energy supply, and chemical security, Jensen says.

If Republicans do make the significant gains in both the House and the Senate that many political analysts are forecasting, some of the policy issues the industry has been heavily engaged in over the past two years will be reprioritized, says William E. Allmond IV, vice president of government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA), a trade group that lobbies on behalf of custom and specialty chemical companies.

“A Republican majority would likely make TSCA reform a lower priority,” Allmond says, referring to the effort to revamp the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the federal law that aims to ensure the safety of chemicals in commerce. The industry has argued against a substantial overhaul of current chemical safety regulations but agrees that updates are needed to reflect modern science.

Credit: SOCMA
Credit: SOCMA

The fact that the chemical industry is advocating for TSCA reform “suggests that our basic position isn’t going to change” regardless of which party controls the House or the Senate, Molinaro says. “Our tactics may change. We may need to have more conversations with some [Republican] members of Congress who will say to us, ‘We just beat the Democrats, so why do we have to do this?’ ” he remarks.

“And we’re going to say, a patchwork of 50 different state chemical management laws is not necessarily good for the global competitiveness of this industry,” Mol­i­naro continues. “Also, the public lacks confidence in the federal chemical regulation statute, so we still need to do something,” he adds. “But we probably stand a better chance of a bipartisan product as we go forward with narrower margins because one party just cannot dominate the game.”

Credit: Dow Chemical
Credit: Dow Chemical

Other issues of concern to the industry, such as reauthorization of the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, or CFATS, “would remain a priority except that we may actually see permanent reauthorization or a longer extension of the existing standards,” Allmond remarks.

Republicans, with chemical industry support, have opposed efforts by Democrats to expand the scope of CFATS, a temporary federal program that sets minimum security standards for facilities that make or use hazardous chemicals. Lawmakers have been unable to agree on a long-term plan.

Of particular interest to SOCMA, Allmond notes, is the likelihood of continued focus on job growth among small businesses. In addition to tax incentives, House Republican leaders are promising to reduce the regulatory burden on manufacturers, “which will provide needed assistance to SOCMA’s members, many of which are small businesses,” the industry official adds.

Even with narrower margins between the parties expected in both chambers of Congress, Allmond says, polarizing issues such as the environment and tax policy could remain highly partisan. But more cooperation on homeland security and drug or food safety policy is likely, he says, in part because of who is in charge of the relevant congressional committees.

“Some committee chairs are willing to work collaboratively with the minority,” Allmond notes. “Sens. [Joseph] Lieberman [I-Conn.] and [Susan] Collins [R-Maine], who have each chaired the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, are good examples of this bipartisanship.”

Although the political tide seems to be rolling toward the Republicans, segments of the traditionally GOP-aligned chemical sector have given a majority of their federal campaign contributions to Democrats in the current 2009–10 election cycle.

Dow, the largest U.S. chemical company, gave 53% of its $261,477 in total donations through August to Democratic candidates and 45% to Republicans, according to federal data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a nonpartisan organization that researches the influence of money on politics. Huntsman Corp. and Praxair each gave more than 60% of their funds to Democrats during the period.

ACC gave 61% of its $271,747 in total contributions through August to Democrats and 38% to Republicans, according to the CRP data. But Jen­sen indicates that there has been an increase in donations to Republican candidates since then, and the final numbers will show a roughly equal distribution between the two parties. “At this point, we’re pretty much at parity, and that’s where we’re going to finish out the cycle,” he says. “We realize that to be successful, it’s going to require working with both sides of the aisle, and I don’t think that’s going to change in the next Congress.”

Many chemical companies continue to tilt heavily toward the Republican Party. The North American arm of German chemical giant BASF gave 69% of its $217,431 in campaign contributions to Republicans, and DuPont sent 67% of its $168,199 in donations to the GOP.

The dollar amounts include contributions from the companies’ political action committees (PACs) as well as from individual donors who are affiliated with the firms, according to CRP.

Most corporations are reluctant to publicly discuss their campaign contribution strategy, but companies generally tend to favor the lawmakers who currently have the most power to influence legislation—primarily incumbents and leaders of the majority party.

Dow, for example, gave 60% of its $417,244 in total donations in the previous 2007–08 election cycle to Republicans and 40% to Democrats. With Democrats now holding large majorities in both the House and Senate as well as occupying the White House, the company’s contributions in the current cycle have swung slightly toward the majority party.

Over the past two years, Dow has donated money to the reelection campaigns of several House Democrats who hold powerful positions, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, and Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan. Top Senate Democrats, such as Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, have also received cash from the company.

Dow strives to be evenhanded in its political donations because “we are trying to operate in a nonpartisan way,” Molinaro tells C&EN. “It’s been a goal of ours, independent of what the political winds are doing, to get closer to 50-50, recognizing that there will be some shift one way or the other depending upon the actual candidates.”

In addition to supporting party leaders, Dow also gives money to the campaigns of lawmakers in congressional districts where the company’s facilities are located, such as Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who represents the Midland area, home of Dow’s global headquarters. The firm also contributes to probusiness members who hold influential positions on key committees, such as Sen. Blanche L. Lincoln (D-Ark.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Lincoln, who is waging an uphill battle to hold on to her seat against Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), is a “moderate” member of the Democratic caucus who has “a long history of being fair and open on business issues,” Molinaro says. “When someone has exhibited that kind of collaborative approach, you don’t necessarily abandon them because they’re having a tough race. That would also send a bad signal to other moderates,” he remarks.

In 2009, Dow donated $10,000 to Rep. Charles Melancon (D-La.), anticipating that he would seek reelection to the House and continue representing the St. Charles district, where Dow operates a major petrochemical complex. The company also gave $9,000 to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who is running for a second term. When Melancon decided to challenge Vitter for his Senate seat, Dow had to choose between two friends.

“It’s a difficult situation when two people you know and who have generally been supportive of your industry are running against each other,” Molinaro says. “It’s a dilemma you just try to navigate through.” Dow decided to stick with the incumbent Vitter and is supporting his Senate reelection bid.

Whether an influx of new members will loosen the partisan gridlock that has characterized Washington for years is unknown. But Molinaro says he is hopeful that “the overarching institutional imperatives to actually govern and the growing lack of public tolerance for not doing things will conspire to cause people to work together.”


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