By Christine Todd Whitman
The Hill’s Congress Blog
June 27, 2013

As governor of New Jersey and later as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, I grew very familiar with the chemical industry. New Jersey ranks in the top ten chemical producing states in the country. It is home to several major chemical manufacturing companies. At EPA, I oversaw the federal programs that evaluate and regulate industrial chemicals and how they are used. My strong support for chemical safety, as well as chemical site security, reflects my many years of experience with this important part of our nation’s infrastructure.

I have always been mindful of the importance of the industry to my state and the nation. It provides nearly 60,000 high paying jobs in New Jersey. It adds billions of dollars to our state and federal tax bases. Its innovations have transformed society. But I also understand the dangers to our health and our environment that chemicals can pose. Effectively managing chemicals, so that we minimize the risks and maximize the rewards, is vitally important. That is why we need a strong, effective approach to chemical regulation.

Congress passed and President Ford signed the Toxic Substances Control Act, (TSCA) in 1976, and today it is the only major environmental statute that has not been updated since its enactment almost 40 years ago. That would be fine if the law was sufficient, but unfortunately, it is not. Most observers, and even some frank industry officials, will tell you that TSCA has been woefully inadequate from the start. Even a known, dangerous, carcinogen like asbestos could not be banned because of loopholes in the law.

The debate about how to rectify this situation has gone on for years. The various stakeholders have been at loggerheads, with no one willing to find the common ground needed to bring TSCA into the 21st century. I, and many others, had concluded that chemical regulatory reform simply would not be possible in the current political environment, where compromise is a dirty word.

Then, last month, something remarkable happened. Two senators who had long disagreed on how to reform TSCA came together to introduce the Chemical Safety Improvement Act. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) crafted a bill that goes a long way toward fixing the problems with the current law. A bipartisan group of 20 other senators stepped forward as cosponsors and a broad array of environmental groups, public health groups, former EPA officials, and industry voiced their support for the bill.

This breakthrough was both refreshing and encouraging, given the Congress’ seeming inability to find bipartisan consensus to address so many of the nation’s challenges. The partnership between Vitter and Lautenberg is exactly the sort of pragmatic policymaking that we must see more of in the halls of Congress. This bill will not only improve the health and safety of Americans, it could also restore some hope in the political and legislative process. This was a big deal.

Sen. Lautenberg and I didn’t always agree, but we did agree that more must be done to improve the safety and security of chemicals, both in their production and their use. His presence and long-time commitment to making chemicals safer was critical to bringing both sides to the table. Unfortunately, since his death, some of his longtime allies, whose issues and causes he championed, have abandoned the bill because they are unwilling to accept the compromise he developed. Once again, it seems that some would rather have an issue to complain about than a solution to brag about.

This is not a unique problem. This attitude frustrates progress on a whole host of issues. But in this case, Vitter and Lautenberg’s bill may be the last, best chance for TSCA reform for years. What those who oppose this bill fail to realize is that the alternative is not a different bill. It is no bill at all. If that ends up happening, the real losers will not be one side of the issue or another. It will be the American people.

This bill recognizes that environmental protection and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive goals. It represents the sort of balanced approach that is the hallmark of true bipartisanship and a legislative process that works for all Americans. Lautenberg invested years in developing a compromise that could actually become law. Let’s hope that the Congress will finish what he so ably started by passing the Chemical Safety Improvement Act.

Whitman, a Republican, was the governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001 and the administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003 under President George W. Bush. She currently heads the Whitman Strategy Group, a consulting firm on environmental and energy issues.