Mining Industry Invests in Politicians; Stopped Mine Safety Law

April 12, 2010 - A bill to help rescue miners in emergencies and protect miners’ safety was defeated in Congress three years ago. After passing the House, the bill, called the S-MINER Act, died in a Senate committee.

Mining interests, who were opposed to this bill, gave twice as much money in campaign contributions to House members who voted against the bill as they gave to members who voted in favor.

In the Senate committee where the bill died, mining firms gave more than twice as much money to committee members as the unions in support.

Background

The recent explosion at the Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29 coal miners has left many bewildered Americans questioning how the federal government could have prevented this tragedy. It has been reported that Massey was in violation of safety regulations and that federal regulatory oversight of mining conditions was lax.

In June of 2007, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) introduced the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER) Act, which, according to the Congressional Research Service, would have supplemented existing mining provisions in the Federal Mine Act to require: "(1) emergency response plans to incorporate new technology; (2) the Secretary of Labor to require the installation of rescue chambers in underground coal mines; and (3) accident response plans to provide for the maintenance of refuges."  Miller chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, which issued a report stating: "The S-MINER Act aims to prevent disasters and, in cases where disasters do occur, to improve emergency response. It also aims to reduce long-term health risks facing miners, such as black lung." Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) explained the bill was necessary because the 2006 MINER Act provisions had not been effectively enforced. “So far, I am concerned that the slow pace of reform is leaving America's miners at risk. We've made progress. But [the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA)] has not moved aggressively to implement all of the provisions of the MINER Act.”

Opposition

Two months after introduction of the bill, the Crandall Canyon mining disaster occurred, killing six miners in Utah. Even after this tragedy highlighted the dangers of industry standard practices and deficiencies of regulatory oversight, the mining industry continued to oppose the bill. The National Mining Association’s Vice President for Safety, Health and Human Resources testified before the committee. "To be forced to respond to an additional layer of statutory requirements at this time will undermine the progress that has been made on miner training and other vital objectives of the act.  It is premature to consider imposing further legislation before the full impact of the original MINER Act can be comprehensively evaluated." Further opposition cited concerns about energy independence and job losses. Congressman Don Young of Alaska argued, "If this bill was to become law, mines will be shut down. They will be shut down." The Bush Administration also strongly opposed the bill, claiming that "several of the regulatory mandates in the S-MINER bill would weaken several existing regulations and overturn regulatory processes that were required by the MINER Act and are ongoing."

Money and Votes

After four amendments were considered and three passed, the House passed the S-MINER Act in January 2008. The bill subsequently died in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, chaired by Sen. Murray, met to consider the bill. Only three members were present for the hearing. No further action was taken on this bill.

For the House vote, 25 House Democrats and nearly all House Republicans voted against the bill. On average, House opponents received 103 percent more money from mining interests than House members voting Yes (an average of $12,526 to each member voting No, $6,174 to each voting Yes). Democrats voting No received 197 percent more money from mining interests than their colleagues voting Yes  (an average of $16,314 to each Democrat voting No, $5,489 to each voting Yes).

Seven House Republicans, including West Virginia's Shelley Capito, supported passage of the bill, although they received little campaign funding from unions, the primary special interest MAPLight.org found to be supporting the bill.

Members of the Senate HELP Committee received 122 percent more from the mining interests than from the unions (see table below). Only three Committee members represent states that have a significant mining industry. Sen. Murray received more than twice as much money from mining interests than any other Democrat on the committee, although her state of Washington is not ranked as a top mining industry state.

Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey and board member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has spent millions of dollars in personal funds to support judicial and state political campaigns, including $3M in an attempt to buy a West Virginia state Supreme Court justice. Nearly another $400,000 was disbursed by Massey's employees, including Blankenship, over the last four election cycles to state and federal candidates, according to query results from a new Sunlight Foundation transparency database. Also, see the Center for Responsive Politics' Capital Eye blog for more information about contributions and lobbying expenditures by Massey and its CEO.

Contributions (2003-2008) from Interest Groups that Supported and Opposed the S-MINER Act
to Members of the Senate HELP Committee in the 110th Congress

Senate HELP Committee Member Party State State Rank in Mining Production $ From Supporting Interest Groups $ From Opposing Interest Groups
Isakson, John Republican GA 20th $0 $97,500
Murray, Patty Democrat WA 32nd $42,000 $74,141
Hatch, Orrin Republican UT 6th $0 $73,350
Murkowski, Lisa Republican AK 10th $0 $72,850
Enzi, Michael Republican WY 3rd $0 $68,600
Burr, Richard Republican NC 26th $0 $63,449
Alexander, Lamar Republican TN 28th $0 $45,800
Roberts, Pat Republican KS 25th $0 $40,300
Bingaman, Jeff Democrat NM 16th $10,000 $33,400
Clinton, Hillary Democrat NY 24th $24,500 $22,700
Coburn, Thomas Republican OK 31st $0 $22,299
Gregg, Judd Republican NH 47th $0 $11,800
Dodd, Christopher Democrat CT 44th $18,500 $9,000
Allard, Wayne Republican CO 12th $0 $7,500
Obama, Barack Democrat IL 19th $29,500 $7,000
Brown, Sherrod Democrat OH 21st $65,250 $6,000
Harkin, Thomas Democrat IA 33rd $23,850 $5,550
Mikulski, Barbara Democrat MD 29th $26,000 $4,500
Reed, John Democrat RI 49th $11,000 $4,000
Kennedy, Edward Democrat MA 39th $4,500 $0
Sanders, Bernard Independent VT 48th $46,800 $0
Total $301,900 $669,739

Methodology

Campaign contributions data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets Open Data. Date range of contributions is: January 1, 2003 - December 31, 2008. According to MAPLight.org, manufacturing unions and mining unions supported the S-MINER Act and the following interest groups opposed: coal mining, metal mining & processing; mining; mon-metallic mining; and stone, clay, glass & concrete products. Contributions to the Presidential campaigns of members of Congress are not included.

The ranking of state mining production is from Table 2 of the National Mining Association's report on The Economic Contributions of U.S. Mining in 2007.

About MapLight: MapLight is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that reveals money's influence on politics. If our work has been helpful to you, please consider supporting us.