Bill Status

Update from the Hill

While the newly-minted 106th Congress was in the throes of Presidential impeachment, little of substance happened in the first couple months of 1999. Now, with the impeachment debacle out of the way, the Republican majority under Trent Lott and Dennis Hastert are beginning to move their Big Business agenda on a number of legislative fronts. Bills that would limit corporations' legal accountability, extend NAFTA-style trade without environmental or labor protections to Africa, and send tons of hazardous nuclear waste through 43 states and within range of 50 million Americans are already being brought to the floor in this Congress.

Action has already begun on the first of these efforts: Lawmakers in both chambers are considering bills to immunize companies whose products fail due to Year 2000 computing problems, the infamous "Y2K bug." These bills (S.96, S. 461, and H.R. 775) represent Big Business' wish-list translated directly into legislation: The bills were actually written by powerful industry groups including the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Semiconductor Industry Association and representatives of large insurance, accounting and computer companies. The bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) has already been voted out of the Commerce Committee.

Industry has two main reasons for this legislation. The obvious one is its desire to immunize from liability companies that messed up by failing to foresee impending Y2K problems and take prompt action to correct those problems. The second, and more ominous, is that the uncertainties of the Y2K problem provides business lobbyists with a vehicle for pushing their long-stymied tort deform agenda in Congress--particularly passage of legislation limiting the rights of consumers and workers to sue when injured or killed by a defective product. For 15 years this has been a top priority of Corporate America.

The proposed Y2K legislation would place barriers in the way of small businesses and consumers trying to remedy Y2K failures or seeking just compensation for damages inflicted by such failures. Namely, it would impose a 90-day waiting period before any action could be filed, and would severely restrict the kinds and amounts of damages that could be assessed against negligent companies. (For instance, punitive damages would be drastically limited, even against companies that egregiously and deliberately disregarded Y2K malfunctions in their products.) Thus, not only would corporations be shielded from consequences if and when their products do fail due to Year 2000 computer problems, but by passing the legislation at this point removes incentives companies now have to fix problems before they occur.

Given the potential scope of Year 2000-related failures, which might effect everything from intravenous pumps to groceries, electricity to air travel, the potential harms that this bill immunizes are enormous. At one congressional hearing on the bill, a small grocery owner testified that he had bought a new cashier/inventory computer system from a company who claimed that their system was Y2K compatible. On opening day, when a customer tried to use a credit card with an expiration date in the year 2000, the entire system crashed, costing the owner thousands of dollars of lost business and even more in lost future patronage. After over 200 service calls to fix the problem, the system still crashed daily. Only by taking the company that sold him the faulty system to court was the store owner able to get it replaced. Under the legislation proposed by Sen. McCain, such remedies would be much, much harder to come by. As of press time, the McCain Y2K bill had been put on hold and other versions of Y2K liability legislation were being introduced while Democratic and Republican Senators tried to work out a compromise on key aspects of the legislation.

Also moving quickly to a vote is a bill that would extend the NAFTA trade and investment model to sub-Saharan Africa. H.R. 434, euphemistically entitled the "African Growth and Opportunity Act"--and dubbed the "NAFTA for Africa Act" by the trade press--has the backing of a coalition of oil, mining and other multinational corporations. It was narrowly passed in the House and died in the Senate last year (as H.R. 1432). While the Clinton Administration looks to the reintroduction of NAFTA for Africa to jump start its comatose trade policy, NGOs in Africa and the U.S. attack H.R. 434 as undermining African interests in equitable and sustainable development, and for ignoring and even undermining human rights, labor and environmental standards in Africa and the U.S.

Finally, one of the scariest pieces of anti-environmental legislation from last year has reared its ugly head in the 106th Congress. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1999 (H.R. 45), introduced by Reps. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) and Ed Towns (D-New York), will require the hasty transport of radioactive waste through 43 states by rail and truck on the way to Yucca Mountain, Nevada. These routes pass within a half mile of 50 million Americans, and with 100,000 shipments expected over the next 30 years, hundreds of accidents are possible.

Researched and written by Jamie Willmuth and Sam Munger of Public Citizen's Congress Watch. For more information on these and other consumer issues, check out the Public Citizen web site at Contact Congress at 202-224-3121. Write your congressmember c/o U.S. House, Washington, DC 20515 or U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510.

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