Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 15, 2006

A back room deal for chemical security?

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Infrastructure Protection — by Christian Beckner on September 15, 2006

Earlier this week CQ had a story (by subscription only), echoed in a piece in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, on a potential deal to insert bare-bones chemical security language into the homeland security appropriations bill that is currently being conferenced by the House and the Senate. From the CS Monitor story:

This summer, the House Committee on Homeland Security unanimously approved a compromise bill that would give DHS the authority to require some high-risk facilities to use safer chemicals when feasible. If a company disagreed with DHS, the bill set up an interagency appeal process.

It was a hard-fought compromise. But now, its advocates contend that the chemical industry, in conjunction with the White House and the Republican leadership, is reneging on the deal. Instead of bringing it to the floor for a vote, House Republican leaders are amending the Homeland Security appropriations bill: It would give DHS the authority to require chemical plants to develop vulnerability assessments and security plans, but it would specifically forbid DHS from requiring any specific security measure. It reads, “Nothing in this section authorizes the Secretary directly or indirectly to require any particular security measure.” Environmental advocates say that line is aimed at ensuring that DHS cannot require companies to switch to safer chemicals when feasible.

“The industry didn’t like what was passed in committee, and now they’re using the appropriations process to craft a drastically weak, completely industry-friendly version and present it as a fait accompli,” says Andy Igrejas of the National Environmental Trust, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Washington. “A congressman can oppose it, but to do so, he or she’d have to vote against Homeland Security appropriations just six weeks before an election.”

Mr. Igrejas adds, “There was an open process where competing proposals led to something that was a deal [Republican leadership] agreed to honor, and now instead, under industry pressure” it’s going back on its word, he says.

The CQ story contradicts the CS Monitor piece somewhat, stating that the appropriations language, at least in its early draft, doesn’t give the chemical industry everything that it wanted, leaving industry lobbyists fearful that it leaves the government with too much discretion. You can make up your own mind by reading the draft text at this link.

Regardless of the exact nature of the language that ends up in the appropriations bill, this is a shameful way to finally deal with this issue. Thousands of hours went into a serious, mature effort to develop comprehensive chemical security legislation, and the bills that passed out of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee are solid, bipartisan pieces of legislation. They don’t give everyone everything they wanted, but they would ultimately deliver the core of what DHS needs to regulate the sector. But these bills have been blocked from moving forward by the chemical industry, which has tried to talk a good game but has constantly maneuvered behind the scenes to stall or block legislation, and has rarely given an inch to reach a durable compromise. And they’ve been blocked by the petty congressional turf war of Sen. Inhofe.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has sat on the sidelines this month, instead of using its muscle to support legislation that it has endorsed, with Sec. Chertoff telling Congress this week that he was operating from the “peanut gallery” on this issue. President Bush has engaged Congress incessantly over the last two weeks to argue for the passage of bills on the NSA program and detainee trials, arguing that these are necessary to protect the nation against terrorism. Legislation is without a doubt necessary on these two issues (although not necessarily on the exact parameters that the Administration has requested). But the Administration’s claims that these bills are necessary to protect the nation have a hollow, empty ring to them in light of its failure to take leadership this month on an issue of equal or great importance to the nation’s security – chemical plant security.

This is not a partisan issue. Prominent Republican security experts such as former White House homeland security advisor Richard Falkenrath support common-sense legislation on chemical plant security, and the bills that the Senate and House committees passed were bipartisan bills. Unfortunately, narrow interests are prevailing over bipartisan, security-driven common sense, and outcome that – and I can’t repeat this enough – puts the American people unnecessarily at risk.

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