The Asbestos Transparency Farce

Among the deadliest and cruelest corporate cover-ups in American history is the decades-long effort by the asbestos industry to conceal what it knew about the health impacts of the "magical mineral." Hundreds of thousands of people in the United States have died from asbestos exposure, and thousands continue to die every year.

There is no small irony, then, in insurers and companies that use asbestos now harping about the need for more "transparency" in asbestos litigation. Asbestos users and insurers are trying to ram through Congress the misnamed Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act. They do not purport with this act to disclose to current and past workers how and to what extent they were exposed to asbestos -- information that might help them get needed medical assistance. Instead, they seek disclosure on public websites of personal information -- including medical information and information about how much they made -- about asbestos claimants and their families.

Astoundingly, the corporate advocates for this legislation try to portray themselves as victims of asbestos litigation.

But the victims aren't the companies that get sued -- they are the perpetrators. The victims are people exposed to asbestos dust and then suffer preventable, painful disease and death, along with the families that have to watch loved ones die agonizing, premature deaths.

Now the perpetrators aim to push through Congress legislation is all about invading the privacy rights of the victims, and obstructing their ability to obtain just compensation.

Insurers and asbestos-using companies, fronted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are spinning a tale in which they are victimized by powerful lawyers representing asbestos victims.

But it's worth doing a reality check on power, wealth and influence in the United States. The advocates victimizing asbestos victims are exerting far more insider lobby power than advocates for asbestos victims.

Federal lobby disclosure forms show that the lobby power deployed by industry that wants to strip rights from asbestos victims exceeds that of asbestos victim advocates by a margin of more than seven to one.

Since 2006, 280 entities have reported lobbying on asbestos, according to federal disclosure records incorporated into a database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Of the top 50 lobbying entities most frequently mentioning asbestos, 1,362 of the mentions are by manufacturers and insurance companies and their trade associations; 186 mentions are by lawyers representing asbestos victims or labor unions. Not so incidentally, Koch Industries is one of the largest lobbyists on asbestos. Others include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (by far the largest), Chubb, Ford Motor and WR Grace. The top lobbying entities on behalf of victims include the American Association for Justice and the Laborers Union.

Now, because federal lobbying disclosure law does not require entities to indicate how much they spend on individual issues and otherwise permits filers a great deal of latitude in how precisely they report their efforts, one needs to be careful not to draw precise conclusions to lobbying disclosure data.

But aggregating mentions of an issue on lobby forms gives a ballpark indicator of the relative deployment of resources, and there's little doubt that meaningful conclusions can be drawn by a score of 1,362 to 186.

With insurers and asbestos-using companies outdistancing asbestos victim advocates by a seven-to-one margin, the disparity in insider political power is evident.

It's hard to imagine that America would pay back the victims of a horrendous corporate cover-up by invading their privacy and victimizing them yet again. But the perpetrators are deploying their overwhelming political power to do exactly that.