Senate Democrats


Washington, DCSenate Democratic Leader Harry Reid delivered the following floor remarks today, renewing his opposition to the proposed asbestos legislation.

Remarks as prepared follow below.


FEBRUARY 7, 2006

Mr. President, I rise again to express my strong opposition to the asbestos bill before the Senate.

I oppose this legislation because it will not provide justice to victims of asbestos exposure. It deprives victims of their legal rights and gives them a trust fund that will not work and will not provide adequate compensation.

Asbestos disease kills thousands of Americans every year. The cases of disease and death caused by asbestos exposure are not abstractions. I have received countless letters from victims of asbestos-related diseases and their families. Each one shares another story of loss and pain.

All of the leading organizations representing asbestos victims oppose this bill: the Committee to Protect Mesothelioma Victims, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, the Asbestos Victims Organization, the White Lung Association and the White Lung Asbestos Information Center. I quote from their letter to me and Senator Frist dated February 1, 2006:

“We do not want this proposed government policy forced upon us. We believe the program will fail to treat victims fairly, while benefiting the very companies that caused the problem.”

It was for the sake of these victims that today I introduced a Senate Resolution designating April 1, 2006, as “National Asbestos Awareness Day.” Introducing this resolution was one small step in an effort to raise awareness of this dangerous substance and the painful effects that exposure to asbestos has caused throughout this country.

It is my hope that designating another National Asbestos Awareness Day will serve as a reminder that exposure to asbestos remains a significant problem in this country, that asbestos-induced illnesses continue to kill or disable Americans at an alarming rate, and that our resolve to adequately protect the rights of these victims must not falter.

One thing we should do for asbestos victims is to defeat the flawed legislation now before the Senate. Approximately 150,000 individual victims of asbestos exposure and their families have petitioned the Senate to communicate their opposition to this legislation. I have with me on the floor this afternoon some of these petitions to illustrate the depth of concern about this bill.

Each one of the ten thousand Americans who will die from asbestos exposure this year will have a similarly tragic story. Each one will leave behind a family that will never be whole again. Each one is counting on us here in the Senate to preserve their right to obtain compensation for the harm caused to them and their families by asbestos exposure.

Opposition to the FAIR Act is not just limited to individual victims. Many workers have been exposed to asbestos, and their unions have been fighting to ensure fair treatment for them. But virtually every major union has concluded that this bill does not meet the needs of their members. The AFL-CIO, the Change to Win Federation, the Steelworkers, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, and the Laborers’ International Union of North America all oppose the FAIR Act.

Beyond unions, a large number of small- and medium-sized businesses oppose the bill, as do the vast majority of insurance companies. They know that this trust fund will not work.

The bill deprives victims of their legal rights and replaces the tort system with a trust fund that is doomed to failure. Experts who have reviewed the bill conclude that the trust fund will be underfunded and will quickly become insolvent.

Just this morning the Bates White Research Firm released another study that found a $90 billion error in the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the trust fund. According to Bates White, CBO underestimated the number of cancer victims who will likely file claims with the fund. Based on this and other factors, Bates White concludes that the real cost estimate for the trust fund should have been at least $260 billion.

During floor debate this morning, Chairman Specter explained what will happen if the trust fund runs out of money. He said:

“We have within the structure of the bill a provision that the administrator can make a reevaluation going through certain preconditions so that if it looks like we’re going to exceed the %140 billion, we can make modifications in the medical standards and criteria to stay within the $140 billion.”

In other words, if the fund runs short, fewer victims will be eligible to recover. So there are real consequences to this underfunded trust fund. It will hurt victims. The only alternative is that taxpayers will be left to fund the shortfall.

Even if the trust fund were adequately funded, the claims system established by the FAIR Act is fraught with defects that would prevent too many victims from recovering what they deserve.

First, the start-up provisions are unfair. As soon as the bill is enacted, the ability of asbestos victims to obtain compensation in the court system is cut off. Also, the bankruptcy court trust fund that are now compensating victims would be shut down, depriving victims of needed compensation.

Second, the bill is unfair to victims with pending or settled court cases. Rather than permit asbestos claims to continue in court while the fund is being established, the bill imposes an immediate two-year stay on nearly all asbestos cases. The bill’s language is so broad that a trial about to begin would be stopped and an appellate ruling about to be handed down would be barred.

Third, the sunset process under the legislation leaves too much uncertainty for victims. If the fund fails to operate as promised, instead of allowing victims to return to court, S. 852 allows the Administrator of the fund to recommend any number of measures to salvage the program. As Chairman Specter said this morning, this means that fewer victims may recover.

Fourth, the bill requires some victims to prove that asbestos was a “substantial contributing factor” to their disease, a higher burden than victims must meet in court where it is sufficient to show that asbestos exposure was a contributing factor, no matter how substantial a factor. The whole concept of a no-fault trust fund is that it is non-adversarial, but this higher burden of proof creates the potential for endless litigation and a high number of rejected claims.

These are just a few of the problems that make this FAIR Act unfair. I have always favored improvements in the way asbestos victims are compensated. But this bill does not accomplish that goal. Instead, the legislation has drifted too far from the original need for reform: ensuring that every victim of the dreadful illnesses caused by asbestos exposure receives the compensation that they deserve. Because this bill does not accomplish this objective, I cannot support it.