The Unnoticed Influence of Special Interests on Climate Change and Pollution Legislation

Issues
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Voters have a right to know whether their elected officials are prioritizing the needs of the public or adhering to practices that better suit their own financial interests.

When legislation that is unfavorable to wealthy special interests who spend significantly on lobbying and other influence measures fails, particularly when lawmakers have a financial stake in the industries impacted, that can create the appearance that lawmakers are prioritizing their own wallets over the needs of their constituents.

To examine the impact of special interest spending and lawmaker stockholding on a piece of legislation, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) conducted a study focused on one example: the ongoing industrial opposition to the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act (BFPPA).

This bill, written to address the environmental effects of plastic production and pollution, includes plastic waste reduction requirements and plastic manufacturing restrictions.

Interests tied to the plastics manufacturing, consumer products and packaging industries are using lobbyists and campaign contributions to build opposition to the legislation.

At the same time, the fact that lawmakers own stocks in these industries has created, at the very least, an appearance that their personal financial interests may be superseding the interests of the American public.

Legislation to Decrease Plastic Production and Pollution

The BFPPA was first introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) in 2020 and was reintroduced in 2021 by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR). The law is intended to combat the twin issues of plastic pollution and climate change related to plastic production.

The BFPPA would temporarily pause the issuing of permits for new or expanded plastic production facilities, ban the production of certain single-use plastic products and require plastics producers to use 80% consumer recycled content from U.S. sources by 2040.

The bill would also require the EPA and other federal agencies to conduct a study on the plastics industry’s impact on the environment to determine the best available technologies and practices to reduce or eliminate pollution. The bill is currently in front of the Senate Committee on Finance.

The Influence of Wealthy Special Interests

Several industries have spent in opposition to the BFPPA, and CLC reviewed those companies which have reported spending over a million in lobbying overall, including on the bill, from 2020 to 2021.

Federal lobbying law does not require the companies to itemize the amount spent on lobbying for specific bills like the BFPPA, but the overall lobbying expenditures show that these companies are spending the most on lobbying.

The oil and gas industry has a significant financial interest in any legislation that impacts plastic production because almost all plastic is created from petrochemicals sourced from fossil fuels, and thus the industry opposes the BFPPA.

Other companies beyond fossil fuel companies that are opposed to the bill include those involved in plastic consumer products and plastic packaging, such as Coca-Cola and Walmart.

CLC has identified three areas in which the financial clout of these companies has worked against this legislation:

Lobbying: The plastics industry and other companies have spent significantly to lobby on the bill. Dow Chemical and Exxon have each reported over $10 million in lobbying expenditures on disclosure reports that include lobbying on the BFPPA since it was first introduced in 2020.

Collectively, CLC found that plastic producers and related trade associations reported at least $198.6 million in lobbying during the same period, including American Chemistry Council, Coca-Cola Company, International Paper and LyondellBasell Chemical Company.

In addition, these organizations have relied on highly-connected lobbyists — they hired 459 former government officials as lobbyists — 408 of whom are former congressional members or staffers.

Campaign Spending: Lobbyists working on behalf of these interests have made major contributions to members of Congress and super PACs. Based on how major political donors influence the lawmakers they help elect, these contributions can disincentivize any meaningful legislative action to address plastics issues.

Reynolds American has contributed nearly $5 million to GOP leadership-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund and its House counterpart Congressional Leadership Fund since 2020.

Koch Industries, which among other ventures, is involved in the manufacturing, refining and distribution of petroleum, has contributed more than $16.6 million to super PACs in the same period. In total, these organizations lobbying on the BFPPA have contributed more than $35.5 million – including $13.7 million directly to campaigns and party committees, since the bill’s introduction.

Conflicts of Interest: Members of Congress may also be influenced by their own personal financial stakes in the companies lobbying on a bill. In reviewing financial disclosure reports covering 2020, which is the most recent year of reports available, CLC found that members of Congress disclosed owning between $8.76 million and and $35.6 million worth of stock in the following public companies that are both lobbying on the BFPPA and contributing campaign funds to members: Celanese Corporation, Coca-Cola Company, Covanta Energy LLC, Dow Chemical Company, Eastman Chemical Company, Exxon Mobil Corporation, International Paper, LyondellBasell Chemical Company, Procter and Gamble Company, Sherwin-Williams Company, Unilever and Walmart Inc.

Voters Have a Right to Know

Wealthy special interests appear to fight for legislative outcomes that prioritize their own financial interests over the interests of the general public. Voters have a right to know whether their elected officials are subject to undue influence from wealthy special interests.

Empowered with this information, voters can hold elected officials accountable for actions that are not aligned with what matters to them.

Methodology

CLC included all companies and trade associations that reported at least one million on lobbying expenditures on lobbying disclosure reports filed with the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives that cited the BFPPA as one of the specific lobbying issues.

The total spent on lobbying was calculated by aggregating the amount reported on all the lobbying disclosure forms that cited BFPPA as one of the lobbying issues.

Note that the lobbying disclosure reports do not itemize how much a lobbyist spent on lobbying on any specific issue. Instead, the reports disclose the complete amount spent on lobbying all issues during the time period.

The number of revolving door lobbyists was determined using OpenSecrets’ federal lobbying profiles for 2022.

Federal campaign contributions were calculated by aggregating disbursements from political action committees associated with the relevant company or trade association to federal candidates and other federal committees beginning Jan. 1, 2020. Memo-line disbursements were excluded from the total to avoid double counting any contributions.

Super PAC contributions were calculated by aggregating receipts from the relevant company or trade association to any independent expenditure only committee beginning Jan. 1, 2020 and ending on June 21, 2022. Any receipts to a non-expenditure only committee that appeared in the search results from the FEC contribution database were excluded from the count.

The number of members owning stock in each listed company was determined by searching Business Insider’s Conflicted Congress databases, which include asset holding data from reports filed in 2021 covering calendar year 2020. Members that fully sold off their relevant stock holding during the year (and reported the sale in a periodic transaction report) were excluded from the count.  

Kedric is CLC's Vice President, General Counsel, and Sen. Dir., Ethics
Sophia is a researcher/investigator on CLC's campaign finance/ethics team.
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