This is a Moms Clean Air Force exclusive interview with Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico:
Fewer than 10 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a good or excellent job, according to the latest Rasmussen poll, released last month. One of the most common explanations for the poor ratings is the commonly bemoaned political gridlock, which has prevented needed progress on many critical issues facing our country, including climate change.
So when Pope Frances spoke before the United States Congress last month, New Mexico’s Senator Tom Udall was surprised by the impact of the Catholic leader’s strong environmental message:
“That was one of the most interesting things to me was how he just changed the tone of Congress. He used language to really bring us together and urge us to cooperate. I came away with the idea that if we could take his inspiration, we could really get a lot of things done.” ~ Senator Tom Udall
Of course, “getting things done” in Congress is a loaded — to some, even laughable — phrase these days. Yet, Udall brings a compelling family history — and hopefulness — to how he looks at the issue.
First Family of Environmentalists
Sen,. Udall has been said to come from “the first family of environmentalists.” His father, Stewart Udall, was Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and ushered in many landmark environmental protections. Among them: the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Preservation Act, and Water Conservation Fund Act.
His Uncle Mo, another champion of environmental causes who served in Congress for 30 years, authored the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, which doubled the size of the National Park System.
“I think it is in the Udall DNA to care for the environment. And a big part of what my Dad taught me [about defending the environment] is the importance of cooperation and working with each other and working across the aisle.”
The major environmental laws his family helped usher in during the 1960s and 1970s, he said, were the result of Republicans and Democrats working together.
“Growing up as a kid, I saw my Dad spending time around Republicans all the time, trying to win them over on issues he was working on as Secretary of the Interior. He would entertain them in our home, take them out on the Potomac River, and do all kinds of things together to say: “Can’t you support this with me?’”
Today, Washington, D.C., has lost that spirit — largely, he suggests, because many Republicans have formed a united front in opposition to conservation and environmental efforts.
“A lot of this has to do with major corporations weighing in in absolutist ways to say they want to see things thrown out rather than reform things in ways that [they?] could work on together.”
Tackling Toxic Chemicals
But Udall is attempting to embrace bipartisanship — most notably, if controversially, in his effort to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act in collaboration with Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter.
“I don’t agree with Sen. Vitter on a lot of issues. But he has been true to his word on getting the bill to where we can work together.”
The Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976 to regulate the use of chemicals that in consumer products. But in the 40 years since, tens of thousands of new chemicals have appeared on the market, most of which have not been vetted.
As a result, Sen. Udall observes:
“People go to the grocery store believing the chemicals they are buying are safe, that someone in government has decided they are safe. But no one has made that conclusion.”
There are, in fact, an estimated 212 chemicals in the average American’s body, according to the Centers for Disease Control. These include, most commonly, those that stem from flame retardants (used in fabrics, upholstery, foam mattresses, computers, and TVs); Bisphenol A, or BPA, the plastic strengthener often used in food and beverage packaging; and Perfluorinate chemicals used in non-stick coatings in cookware and microwave popcorn bags.
The Vitter-Udall bill, called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (S-697), is an effort to fix a chemical review process many consider broken. It currently has 60 co-sponsors and could soon be up for a vote in the Senate.
According to Udall, the new legislation would require a health-based standard, in which the EPA considers only the impact on health and environment when determining whether to allow a chemical to be sold, instead of basing decisions on the costs of regulating that chemical. The new legislation would also require EPA to begin the process of reviewing a backlog of 84,000 chemicals that have never been evaluated for safety. That number grows by a thousand each year, as new chemicals enter the market. Udall’s bill would also require chemical companies to contribute $25 million a year to pay for the new regulation.
But there has been much criticism of the bill — most notably, from some in the environmental community, including many working on chemical reform, who are concerned that the new bill unreasonably limits the power of states that want to regulate chemicals.
Asked about the bill’s critics, Sen. Udall said:
“Immediately, when I started working with Sen. Vitter, we started taking care of issues people were raising. Our approach has been from the very beginning having all stakeholders present,” he said — adding: “I’d be the first to say it isn’t a perfect bill, but the perfect is the enemy of the good in Washington.”
The Power of Parents
Reflecting back to the Pope’s visit, Sen. Udall observed that, in the wake of the Pope’s departure, there will be the temptation to forget his inspiration and for Congress to devolve to a state gridlock once again.
But that pull to inaction, he said, is why it is so important that parents and young people stay involved in the issues.
“It comes back to the Moms Clean Air Force and what you’re all doing. Groups like that don’t forget. The role you are playing is tremendously important. It’s the way to break gridlock — with Moms and other grassroots groups.
We can reform the system if the system isn’t working — if people stay involved,” he added. “I’m not saying big corporations don’t have a huge impact. But political leaders working with grassroots can rein them in.”