- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

Among conservatives, there is perhaps no senior figure in Washington more associated with compromise than Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican.

Considered conservative by liberals, Mr. Hatch frustrates conservatives. He’s sponsored a federal tobacco tax increase bill with Ted Kennedy, promoted anti-gun measures and endorsed the destruction of healthy human embryos for stem-cell research. When he briefly ran for president against George W. Bush, he told The Washington Post “I think it is time to have someone who is not beholden to the Republican establishment.”

But Mr. Hatch’s penchant for pragmatism now is key to the solution to one of the most intransigent and undercovered problems of recent decades: the asbestos liability crisis.

Despite the tens of thousands unemployed, the bankruptcy of sixty-plus firms and a price tag likely to exceed the cost of the Iraq war, the asbestos crisis has attracted little notice outside of those directly affected.

Asbestos, a mineral, was once considered an industrial godsend. Because certain varieties do not burn or conduct heat and are resistant to chemicals, they were widely used for making fireproof materials, electrical insulation, roofing and filtering devices.

But if directly inhaled over long periods, asbestos can be lethal. During the first six decades of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of workers in mines, shipyards and factories worked largely unprotected from clouds of asbestos dust. Many developed debilitating diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, and died premature and painful deaths.

The EPA then overreacted, taking a zero-tolerance line against asbestos, falsely stating that even infinitesimal amounts of this mineral that most of us breathe daily poses a health hazard.

Personal-injury lawyers entered the fray. The first bankruptcies occurred in the 1980s. Huge awards encouraged lawsuits, even as defendants’ links to asbestos weakened. By 2002, the Rand Institute of Civil Justice estimated a whopping 85 percent of America’s major corporations were targets of asbestos lawsuits, as were tens of thousands of smaller businesses. Most had only a peripheral connection to the mineral.

Shockingly, evidence has revealed that little of the billions awarded are reaching sick plaintiffs. Huge legal expenses take 60 percent of the awards, while 65 percent of the funds left over have gone to persons who have no asbestos-related illness.

Meanwhile, bankruptcies mount. Efforts at a universal settlement hit a wall when the Supreme Court declared in 1999 that Congress would have to be involved in any permanent solution.

The debate became mired in politics. Democrats, heedful of the interests of lawyers who donate generously to their campaigns, had reason to delay. Republicans lacked the 60 votes necessary to get a bill through the Senate, and in any case, were divided between two competing solutions: a medical standards solution and a trust fund for paying claims. In the last Congress, the stalemate was such that no one even bothered to introduce a bill.

But the compromise engineered by Mr. Hatch is now giving the first hope in years that the crisis may soon be solved. If so, victims will benefit and so will the economy. One Morgan Stanley analyst likens the positive benefit of successful tort reform to the full impact of President Bush’s proposed dividend tax cut.

Working with liberals Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat and Chris Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, and giving labor unions a place at the table, Mr. Hatch has brokered a compromise that will have defendant corporations and insurance companies finance a $108 billion asbestos trust fund.

Lawsuits will end. Sick plaintiffs will get benefits without legal fees, lengthy court cases or the need to prove that a single defendant caused their illness. A chest X-ray showing asbestos-related disease presented before an asbestos court will trigger compensation. And although corporations will fund the payouts, asbestos-related bankruptcies should cease, as companies will know the extent of their liabilities and be able to plan for them.

The labor unions aren’t yet signed on, but they want to tweak the Hatch solution, not kill it. And Mr. Hatch’s quarter- century of compromise on Capitol Hill has given him, by GOP standards, the trust of Democrats.

Asbestos reform is far from a done deal. But thanks to behind-the-scenes maneuvering by a senator often maligned by conservatives for his eagerness to compromise, it is just possible that a permanent end to this crisis is on the horizon.

Amy Ridenour is president of the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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