Bill Status
Defective Products Bill Dead for The Year

The products liability bill, which would have made it more difficult for consumers to hold corporations accountable for manufacturing defective products, appears to be dead this year in the U.S. Senate. On July 9 -- in a solid victory for consumer forces, labor, women, families and trial lawyers -- Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi failed to get enough votes to cut off debate by opponents of the products deal. The bill had been negotiated between President Clinton and Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). A super-majority of 60 votes was needed to close debate and limit amendments on the bill. Tort deformers only got 51 votes, as Republican senators Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and William Roth (R-Del.) joined all 45 Democrats (including Sen. Rockefeller) in opposing cloture.

Democrats appear to have hung together because of the heavy-handed tactics of Lott who sought to ram the bill through without permitting a host of pro-consumer amendments intended to blunt the worst aspects of this bad bill. An added significant blow was a "stink bomb" article that appeared on the front page of the New York Times the morning of the vote, which revealed that Sen. Lott slipped into the bill a provision that would have provided immunity from lawsuits for defective biomaterials components made by a major company from his home state. The company, Baxter Healthcare Corp., recently had an $18 million judgment against it for a defective intravenous tube (which could have been covered by the bill's protections).

Tobacco Bill's Demise Linked to Cash Crop

Despite bipartisan Congressional support, the approval of the public health community, and widespread public interest, Senate Majority Leader Lott and the Republican leadership recently thwarted efforts to pass national tobacco-control legislation. Why? For years, many Republican senators and the national Republican Party have taken millions in PAC dollars and soft money contributions from Big Tobacco -- nearly five times as much as their Democratic Party counterparts. Though the tobacco industry's proposed sweetheart deal -- negotiated with the state attorneys general in June -- was eventually transformed into a strong public health bill through amendments on the Senate floor, the Republican leadership managed to pay back the tobacco companies by crushing the legislation Big Tobacco feared most.

A new Public Citizen report correlated pro-consumer scores for 14 key votes on S. 1415, the McCain bill, with the amounts senators received from tobacco PACs from 1993-1997 (the last three election cycles). The analysis shows that those 34 Senators who voted most of the time with Big Tobacco (scores of 0 to 20%) received more than seven times the amount of tobacco PAC money on average than the 40 who voted with consumers most of the time (scores of 80-100%). Senators voting with Big Tobacco most of the time received an average of $22,049 in tobacco contributions from 1993-1997, while senators voting against Big Tobacco most of the time received an average of $3,195.

House May See Real Finance Reform

A genuine bipartisan reform bill, sponsored by Representatives Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), was heading to the House at press time. Backed by a major grass-roots campaign by Public Citizen, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, U.S. Public Interest Research Groups and Public Campaign, it appears to have gained majority support. While not perfect by any means, the Shays-Meehan bill addresses two key problems with our current campaign finance system and is supported by even those advocating for full public financing. Without doubt, elections conducted under it would be cleaner and fairer. The most egregious loopholes in current campaign finance law, the soft money loophole -- unlimited contributions from the wealthy, corporations and unions -- and the unregulated use of sham "issue ads" designed to support or oppose a candidate while evading contributions limits, would be shut down or significantly curtailed. On balance, reformers believe the Shays-Meehan legislation is a big step forward and is worth enacting on its own merits.

In recent weeks, reform advocates have been greatly assisted by Republican leaders who seem completely out of touch with the public's increasing disgust with a bankrupt campaign finance system. In April, after a staged "debate" on four Republican campaign finance bills, protests by legislators and grass roots activists forced Speaker Gingrich to schedule a debate on a range of reform bills. Despite their subsequent public commitment to finishing consideration of campaign finance reform before the August recess, the Republican leadership continues to maneuver against the Shays-Meehan bill: using stalling tactics to "talk the bill to death," sponsoring "poison pill" amendments designed to split its bipartisan coalition, and fostering an alternative sham reform bill authored by House freshmen. Nevertheless, reformers won two key test votes on the bill by significant margins in June and a coalition of 180-190 Democratic Representatives and another 30-40 Republicans are expected to coalesce behind the bill for final votes expected before the summer recess begins August 10th.

This article was prepared by Jamie Willmuth, Senior Researcher at Public Citizen's Congress Watch. For more information, visit the Public Citizen website at, or call 202-546-4996, ext. 315 or e-mail You can call your Senators and Representatives at 202-224-3121 or toll-free at 1-800-504-0031.

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