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THE 105TH CONGRESS had a hit-and-miss record for helping businesses reduce their liability exposures.
Hits included passage of bills that would provide limited immunity for manufacturers of raw materials used in medical devices, curb class-action securities litigation and bring Year 2000 liability relief.
Misses during this Congress included inaction on bills that would reform product liability laws, Superfund and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was lawmakers yet again failed to agree on comprehensive federal product liability reform legislation. This is disappointing not only because it has been considered more times than we can count without success, but also because the generally pro-business 105th Congress was a rare opportunity to build support for this measure. However, this setback was partly offset by enactment of legislation that would grant a degree of product liability relief for manufacturers of raw materials used in certain medical devices. The successes of incremental reform like this and an earlier measure targeting the general aviation industry should help proponents win serious consideration of broader reforms in the future.
Another issue that missed out on serious consideration was reform of the Superfund law. Sadly, this is an issue of diminishing expectations. Each Congress offers proposals that seem to scale back the extent of liability relief and yet still don't manage to enact even that modest reform.
Major OSHA reform also went undone. Major reform seemed possible only a year ago, but efforts to enact it fizzled in the 105th. We can take some comfort, though, in the fact that several narrow bills that codified administrative reforms OSHA already had made became law.
On the positive side of the 105th's ledger, Y2K relief legislation won lawmakers' approval in the waning days of this congressional session. This measure would grant businesses temporary relief from liability for sharing information on the Year 2000 problem (BI, Sept. 21).
President Clinton, however, has yet to sign this bill. He also has not signed another important measure that won congressional approval: legislation that would require that most class-action suits involving nationally traded securities be tried in federal rather than state court. This business-backed measure would help rein in frivolous lawsuits.
Businesses need to push early and often in the next session for balanced reform of product liability, Superfund and OSHA. That is the best hope for building on the achievements and overcoming the frustrations of the 105th Congress.