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Party Defection Brings a Sea Change in the Senate

In this most extraordinary political year, an unprecedented mid-year party defection by a single Senator has shifted the balance of power in the 50/50 Senate.

Sen. Jim Jeffords' exit from the Republican party caught many by surprise. Whether it was a calculated move to grab personal political power, or the act of a moderate who no longer felt welcome in his own party, is a matter of widely divergent opinion. The result, however, will be an end to the historic power-sharing arrangement in the Senate. This will move the chairmanship of key Senate Committees of interest to those in the converting industry to Democrats, and potentially affect the workings of a variety of regulatory agencies that industry members must deal with.

To highlight only a few, Sen. Jeffords will become chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The important HELP Committee — the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — will be chaired by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC) will chair the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The Senate still must sort out committee membership, but the Chairman and Majority Leader wield considerable power over the legislative agenda. So work on a patient's bill of rights, campaign finance reform, and other measures likely will take priority over the energy bill that is an Administration priority.

Administration nominees expected to hold key positions in important regulatory agencies could be affected. Sharper questioning of their policies and intentions is expected during confirmation hearings.

The Administration has not named someone to head the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for example. Assistant Administrators for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) offices of Air and Radiation; International Activities; Water; and Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances have been named but not yet been confirmed.

Assistant Administrators for EPA's offices of Solid Waste and Emergency Response; Enforcement and Compliance Assurance; Environmental Information; and Research and Development have not been named. An Assistant Administrator for Environment and Public Health has not been named at the Dept. of Energy (DOE). The Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality has been named but not confirmed. The new Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — the office with oversight authority over EPA — awaits confirmation. His strong background in risk assessment has earned criticism from environmental and other groups.

Despite the recent chaos, important agency work continues that will be of value to the converting industry. This includes FDA's reorganization effort to create a new Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS). Replacing the Office of Premarket Approval, the new structure is organized on functional lines to streamline operations. New units include the Div. of Food Contact Substance Notification Review; the Div. of Petition Review; the Div. of Biotechnology and GRAS Notice Review; and the Div. of Chemistry Research & Environmental Review.

According to OFAS director Dr. Alan Rulis, the new structure should allow FDA to act more responsively to various requests. The changes will be put into place June 18.

The first few months of a new Presidential administration always involve change and sometimes result in delays or power vacuums that can lead to bad regulatory policy, even when the same political party stays in power at the White House. The current shift in the Congress could exacerbate the situation, over and above the likely affect on legislative issues, such as energy and health care, of broad interest to industry. The fact that reforms in handling food additive issues have continued successfully at FDA in the interim is a helpful sign in at least one area of key concern for members of the converting industry.

Sheila A. Millar, a partner with Keller and Heckman LLP, counsels both corporate and association clients. Contact her at 202/434-4143; e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; web site: PackagingLaw.com.


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