Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee voted 19-11 to pass the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act of 2017.
Sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), the FACT Act requires asbestos trusts “to file, each quarter, a public report with the bankruptcy court listing the name and exposure history of those who have filed a claim with such trust and any payments made to claimants and the basis for such payments.” Support and opposition for the bill (H.R. 906) broke down neatly along party lines: 19 Republican votes for, 11 Democratic votes against.
What’s strange is that both parties claim to be serving the interest of asbestos victims. How can both sides, with completely contradictory views, claim to be acting in the best interests of the very same victims who are suffering – or have died – from debilitating diseases such as mesothelioma?
What Is the FACT Act?
Victims of asbestos-related diseases receive compensation from asbestos trusts. In order to receive compensation, victims must submit a lot personal information about their identification, work history, the nature of their injury, and the basis for compensation. This is extremely sensitive data, and the FACT Act requires asbestos trusts to share this information in quarterly reports.Like the so-called “Patriot Act,” a bill which famously took power and privacy away from American citizens, the FACT Act, too, is has misleading title. And like the Patriot Act, the Fact Act seeks to strip citizens, many of them veterans, of their privacy.What this means for victims is that their health and work history becomes public information. When sensitive facts about a victim’s life become public, who benefits? On February 24, the Committee delivered their report on the bill, which sheds some light on the positions of both parties.Should Lawmakers Focus on “Innocent Businesses” or Exposed Veterans?
House Republicans, like FACT Act co-sponsor Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), contend that the bill will “ensure deserving victims receive the maximum relief for their illness and injuries.” Groups like the American Insurance Association (AIA) have rushed to applaud the efforts of Rep. Goodlatte and the other Republicans for protecting “innocent businesses.”
House Democrats, on the other hand, do not think the FACT Act was passed to help people suffering from of asbestos-related diseases. Instead of ensuring deserving victims get help, Democrats argue, “this bill would allow unsuspecting asbestos victims to be further victimized, all in the name of helping those who harmed these victims in the first place.” In opposing the FACT Act, Democrats found agreement not with “innocent businesses,” but veterans.
A letter signed by 18 Veteran Service Organizations who oppose the FACT Act notes the tragic link between veterans and asbestos-related diseases. They write, “Although veterans represent only 8 percent of the nation’s population, they comprise 30 percent of all known mesothelioma deaths.”
Mesothelioma is a lethal cancer caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos.
The FACT Act, they argue, is “an offensive invasion of privacy” and “does nothing to assure their adequate compensation or to prevent future asbestos exposures and deaths.” Focusing on the victims instead of the “innocent businesses,” it’s easy to see that changes mandated by the FACT Act have nothing to offer victims. The letter concludes:
“The FACT Act is a bill that its supporters claim will help asbestos victims, but the reality is that this bill only helps companies and manufacturers who knowingly exposed asbestos to our honorable men and women who have made sacrifices for our country.”
What’s even worse is that these companies and manufacturers are not being held to a similar standard. Why should victims have to make their sensitive information public if companies do not? Victims simply want their privacy, whereas companies often have more sinister motives. As Democrat’s pointed out in the report:
“Many defendant companies insist on confidentiality agreements before entering into settlement agreements specifically in order to prevent evidence of their wrongdoing from becoming public. More importantly, because of the secrecy of these settlements, other people who have been injured have no way of gaining important information about their exposure, their illnesses, or the settled liability of the companies that made them sick. Information about the concealment of wrongdoing never becomes public, and the people who have suffered have no way of knowing about that wrongdoing or its extent.”
The deck is already stacked against people who have been exposed to asbestos. Companies are able to protect themselves long after it is too late for victims. Why mandate transparency for the victim and not the company?
The Strategy of Silencing Victims
In order to push their agenda, House Republicans have called on various experts over the years, but never once have they asked a victim to testify.
In their report on the bill, Democrats noted the routinely misplaced focus of their Republican colleagues. In a hearing on the previous iteration of the FACT Act, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) asked the relatives of asbestos victims who were in attendance:
“to stand and then shake their heads ‘yes or no’ in response to his question (Do you all either have current cases or have you settled?), which he then sought to use to support his arguments in support of the legislation. The victims observed, ‘Not one of us was given an opportunity to voice our opinions of the legislation, and yet, a member of the committee was permitted to use our presence in the hearing room to further his own position that is in direct contravention of our views.”
This behavior is very telling. It’s no wonder that House Republicans are being applauded by business interests, like the AIA.Will the FACT Act Become a Law?The FACT Act of 2017 is a carbon copy of a bill from the last Congress, which Republicans passed through the House in January of 2016. That bill (H.R. 1927) was not considered by the Senate, and then President Obama would likely have vetoed the bill. Since then, the complexion of both the legislative and executive branches has changed considerably. Now that the FACT Act has been passed by the House Judiciary Committee, it moves to the floor of the House where it will be debated. Most likely, the vote in the House will again be split down party lines. With Republican majorities in both the House (238 Republican seats to 193 Democrat) and Senate (52 Republican seats to 46 Democrat), there is a serious chance that this bill will make it to President Trump’s desk. If that happens, it’s unlikely that the asbestos-loving President will veto the FACT Act, and the bill could very well become law. Given the long history of asbestos-using manufacturers hiding the dangers of their products from the public, they should be the ones subject to increased transparency. To place this burden on the victims instead of the companies who hurt them is backwards. The FACT Act paints victims as villains and transfers protection from innocent people to big business.