12 min read

Asbestos, AIDS, and Afghan translators

The 50-year-long story of a bipartisan effort that came to fruition this week.
Asbestos, AIDS, and Afghan translators
Illustration by DALL-E

Good morning! It’s Friday, March 22, 2024. Election Day is 228 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Usually, in my Friday columns, I track bipartisan bills and resolutions as they advance through various stages of the legislative process, from being introduced in Congress to being signed into law by the president.

But the process of turning an idea into a public policy reality rarely ends there, despite what “Schoolhouse Rock” might suggest. In fact, it will often take years for a new law to be fully implemented — if it ever even is. Today, I want to walk you through an important policy development from this week that was more than a half-century in the making.

Our story begins in 1971, when President Richard Nixon — as part of his annual practice of sending messages to Congress about the state of the environment — formally asked lawmakers to give his newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to “restrict the use or distribution of any substance which [it] finds is a hazard to human health or the environment.” (In a televised speech to accompany the message, Nixon began by quoting T.S. Eliot: “Clear the air! Clean the sky! Wash the wind!”)

Nixon’s request initiated five years of intense debate among Democrats, Republicans, businesses, and environmental groups, which eventually produced the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976. The bipartisan measure empowered the EPA to regulate the use of chemicals in order to guard against health and environmental risks. When President Gerald Ford signed the bill into law, he pronounced it “one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation” ever passed by Congress.

After its enactment, one of the first chemicals the EPA began to study was asbestos, a known carcinogen that was commonly used in construction at the time. That review process took about 10 years, culminating in the 1989 release of a regulation by George H.W. Bush’s EPA which would have banned most asbestos products. However, the TSCA was soon revealed to be weaker than originally imagined: while the law required new chemicals to undergo testing, the EPA could only ban existing chemicals if they were found to pose an “unreasonable risk.” Additionally, when reviewing existing chemicals, the agency was directed to consider the potential costs of a ban, not just the benefits.

In 1991, a federal court overturned the asbestos regulation, finding that the EPA had not comprehensively performed that cost-benefit calculation. For the next 25 years, the TSCA was rendered largely toothless, with asbestos regarded as the “poster child” for the law’s failures. The EPA never again tried to restrict any of the 62,000 chemicals that existed at the time of the TSCA’s enactment.

That status quo remained in place until the 2010s, when lawmakers began negotiating a bill to strengthen the TSCA. In 2016, years of bipartisan talks finally led to the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which was approved almost unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama. Whereas the 1976 law gave the EPA the ability to review existing chemicals, the 2016 act mandated that the agency to do so — and made it easier by removing the cost-benefit analysis from the equation. If any chemical posed a health or environmental hazard, the EPA now had the duty to restrict it, without taking the potential costs of a ban into consideration.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), one of the bill’s authors, crowed to the New York Times that lawmakers had managed to pull “the Chamber of Commerce and...the manufacturers and the Environmental Defense Fund all together on this thing.”

You might think that would be the feel-good ending to this story: a gap existed in the law, and bipartisan lawmakers eventually arrived to fix it. But, no. Even though the 2016 law set deadlines that required the EPA to study new and existing chemicals within a certain timeframe, the agency went on to miss more than 90% of those deadlines. A law may have been passed, but the agency charged with implementing it was too understaffed to do so. The lag continued.

Still, though, the work to restrict asbestos — the chemical that had exposed the TSCA’s weakness in the first place — crept on. In 2019, a House committee voted 47-1 to approve a federal ban on asbestos, but it never reached the floor. The EPA’s efforts mostly stalled during the Trump era, but in December 2020 — in the final days of the administration — the agency released a “final risk evaluation” determining that asbestos presents an “unreasonable risk” to human health.

The Biden administration picked up where that determination left off, moving ahead with the years-long rulemaking process to release a new regulation. This week, the EPA formally banned chrysotile asbestos, the mineral’s most common form. According to the agency, exposure to asbestos — which can cause several forms of cancer — is linked to more than 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Once this ban fully phases in, the deadly chemical will no longer be used in the U.S. (There are six forms of asbestos. The EPA action technically only applies to one, known as “white asbestos,” but the other five are already no longer used in any U.S. products.) It is the first time that the EPA has issued a regulation under the Lautenberg Act of 2016.

Five decades and two bipartisan laws later, a Democratic administration finished the work that began under a Republican president long ago.

Many problems in Washington are blamed on partisan gridlock, but this story is instructive because it offers a glimpse at some of the pitfalls that can plague a policy even when both parties agree on it. Judicial interpretation, lack of executive branch capacity (or political will), and industry lobbying can all converge to rejigger or effectively dismantle a law, even when sweeping majorities of Congress supported it. But, also, even policies that face such hurdles can eventually be implemented if lawmakers, agencies, and advocates put in years of dogged work.

Both of these lessons are worth keeping in mind when you see fancy signing ceremonies on TV or news reports about newly approved bills — including the ones from this week I’ll chronicle below.

Before we continue, a quick ask: These newsletters — especially the Friday issue — take time and resources to put out. I’ve often thought about putting the Friday columns behind a paywall, but I don’t want to do that, because I believe they provide important information about our government that you don’t always get from other sources.

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Now, here’s your weekly update on bipartisanship in Washington.

#1: The biggest bipartisan accomplishment this week was the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, which packages together the six remaining Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations bills. (Federal discretionary spending is distributed through 12 annual appropriations bills. The first six passed Congress with bipartisan support and were signed by President Biden earlier this month.)

The 1,012-page package — directing $1.2 trillion in spending for the Departments of Defense, State, Treasury, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Homeland Security — contains wins and losses for both parties, just like the bipartisan Fiscal Responsibility Act it is based on. In other words, it is a compromise.

I do want to quickly point your attention to two initiatives funded in the measure, both of which — like the asbestos regulation — are the result of years of effort by members of both parties:

  • The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — the U.S. government’s program to combat HIV/AIDS around the world — will be reauthorized for one year. Until Covid-19, it was the largest global health program focused on a single disease; it is also one of the most successful public health programs in history, having saved a remarkable 25 million lives. PEPFAR, which was founded by George W. Bush, has also been markedly bipartisan since its inception; its last reauthorization was approved unanimously by both chambers of Congress. Some Republicans had recently been resistant to extending the program over concerns that its funding goes to organizations that provide abortion services. (PEPFAR officials have said that claim is untrue.)
  • The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which provides visas to Afghan nationals who assisted the U.S. military during the war in Afghanistan, will be expanded to include 12,000 additional recipients. The SIV program was also created by lawmakers from both parties, as a way to protect Afghans who risked their lives for the U.S. war effort — many as interpreters — and now face reprisal from the Taliban.

The spending package is set to receive a vote on the House floor today. Both chambers will have to pass it by midnight to avoid a partial shutdown; it is unclear if the Senate will be able to approve the measure in time. Once the package is approved, the FY 2024 spending process will finally be complete — almost six months after the fiscal year began.

The 1,012-page bipartisan appropriations bill released this week. (Photo by Andrew Clyde)

#2: Building off of the bipartisan success of last week’s TikTok bill, the House approved the Protecting Americans’ Data from Foreign Adversaries Act by a 414-0 vote. The measure would make it illegal for data brokers to sell Americans’ personal information — including Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, genetic information, and texts and emails — to North Korea, China, Russia, or Iran. It would be the first federal data privacy law in years.

#3: Two more steps aimed at countering China. The House voted 393-13 in favor of a bill that would prohibit U.S. ports from using LOGINK, a Chinese state-sponsored software that is used at ports in more than 60 countries. The chamber unanimously passed a bill prohibiting the State Department from contracting with Chinese companies to build American embassy buildings, or locating embassies in properties leased or bought from Chinese firms.

#4: If you’ve tried to get a passport at any point in the last few years, then you know the process has been marked by long delays. The backlog has improved since the peak of the pandemic — as of November, the State Department said it was processing applications in 7-10 weeks — but has yet to return to its pre-pandemic baseline. Since Covid, the agency has been overwhelmed by a record number of passport applications.

The House voted unanimously this week to approve a bill aimed at addressing the issue. The measure would require the State Department to take steps to modernize the passport process, with the goal of reforming the system so that U.S. citizens can get their passports renewed within 30 days. These steps include expanding the online passport renewal system, creating a mobile app to allow applicants to submit documents, and setting up text and email notifications to keep applicants apprised of their applications status and to notify them about any application errors. The State Department would also be authorized to hire 100 new contractors to achieve these requirements.

#5: Three interesting resolution votes this week. By a 222-196 vote, the House approved a resolution “expressing the sense of Congress that a carbon tax would be detrimental to the United States economy,” with 10 Democrats in favor and one Republican opposed. By a 399-9 vote, the House approved a resolution “condemning the illegal abduction of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation,” which nine Republicans opposed. Finally, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution “recognizing the national debt as a threat to national security.”

#6: President Biden signed two bipartisan bills into law this week, both of which were approved unanimously by both chambers of Congress. The END FENTANYL Act would require U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to update its policies on stopping the flow of illegal drugs at least every three years. (CBP has not updated its drug inspection policies in almost 20 years, preventing the agency from utilizing new technologies or processes specific to handling fentanyl.)

The Disaster Assistance Deadlines Alignment Act would create a consistent application deadline for two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster assistance programs. The programs currently have different deadlines, which can often confuse disaster survivors who have trouble keeping track of the conflicting dates. The measure also allows for extensions of the deadline if the individual “has good cause for the late submission.”

#7: Speaking of the Biden administration, let’s look at implementation of two landmark bipartisan laws. This week, the Commerce Department announced a preliminary deal with Intel to award the company almost $20 billion in grants and loans to advance domestic semiconductor manufacturing. The funding — which the administration says will create about 30,000 new manufacturing and construction jobs — is expected to be the largest amount given to a single company under the bipartisan Chips and Science Act.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Department opened applications for the Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program (ATIIP), a $44.5 million program created by the bipartisan infrastructure package to fund bicycle and walking trails across the country. In a first for a federal program, it will aim not just to build new trails but also to connect existing ones — potentially helping build the Great American Rail-Trail, a proposed network of walking and biking routes that would stretch from Washington state to Washington, D.C.

#8: Finally, some bills at the beginning of the legislative process. Bipartisan bills were introduced this week to strengthen federal bribery laws, ensure that ex-convicts leave prison with a valid government ID, create 10 new federal judgeships, and crack down on individuals sending unsolicited lewd photos.

Many of these are not “major” pieces of legislation. But, as I’ve said before, they would push the buck forward little by little — ensuring a few more people can get their passports renewed, or qualify for disaster assistance, or protect their personal data — which is often what government is all about.

That said, keep your eyes on Capitol Hill, where there is the potential for some bigger bipartisan actions in the next few months. Now that lawmakers are done with appropriations, a lot more space will open up for legislating on other issues. (After they come back from a two-week recess, of course.)

In the House, per Punchbowl News, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has said that the next item on his agenda will be figuring out a way forward for Ukraine and Israel aid. One option gaining steam in Washington is to repackage direct aid for Ukraine as a loan, which some Republicans have expressed openness to supporting. (The fact that Johnson is prioritizing the issue at all is notable. His rhetoric has quietly turned more and more sympathetic towards Ukriane aid recently. “We understand the role that America plays in the world,” he said this week. “We understand the importance of sending a strong signal to the world that we stand by our allies. And we cannot allow terrorists and tyrants to march through the globe.”)

In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took a procedural step this week to move towards consideration of the bipartisan House tax deal, although Senate Republicans seem increasingly skeptical of the package. There’s also the other major bipartisan bill sent over from the House: the TikTok bill. Senators received a briefing on the app Wednesday, which backers of the bill hope will shock the chamber into action.

Now that the spending saga is over, senators are also eyeing a flurry of other bipartisan bills — including “a rail safety bill responding to the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio; cannabis banking legislation, a new farm bill, a package of community health center funding and action to lower drug prices; and a new FAA bill,” per Politico — which might receive floor consideration.

More news to know.

Johnson says he will extend an invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress / CNN

Trump’s Truth Social is going public after winning DWAC merger vote / Axios

U.S. sues Apple for illegal monopoly over smartphones / The Verge

Russia, China veto U.S. resolution calling for immediate cease-fire in Gaza / ABC

Inside Garland’s Effort to Prosecute Trump / NYT

Indicted Sen. Bob Menendez declines reelection as Democrat, may run as independent / Politico

Before I go...

Here are two pieces that stuck with me from this week:

  • This New York Times obituary for Martin Greenfield, who survived Auschwitz as a teenager — the only one in his family to do so — and went on to become one of America’s pre-eminent tailors. Greenfield, who died at age 95 this week, made suits for six presidents, Leonardo DiCaprio, and LeBron James. (A Washington Post article from 2012 includes even more details of Greenfield’s remarkable life, from cheering for Dwight Eisenhower at the liberation of Buchenwald to later slipping notes with foreign policy advice into the suits he would make for him.)
  • David Frum’s emotional piece for The Atlantic about the sudden death of his daughter Miranda — and the spunky Cavalier King Charles spaniel she left behind.

Both articles are about death — but also about hope, and love, and building back from grief. “An obituary that tells the American experience,” a friend texted me, sharing the Times piece on Greenfield.

All three of these links are gift links, which means the articles are free to read even if you don’t subscribe to the publications.

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— Gabe