With a heavily Democratic Congress and a new Democratic administration, the U.S. plastics industry can expect more legislative and regulatory initiatives in 2009 than it faced during the past eight years. But the most critical issue, at the federal level, will be how President-elect Barack Obama addresses the country's economic and financial problems.
``If you ask me what the priorities are, it is the economy, the economy, the economy,'' said Bill Carteaux, president and chief executive officer of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. ``That includes the housing crunch because of how housing can reverberate in all sectors of the economy,'' he said.
``The massive economic stimulus package is the No. 1 issue the president and Congress will have to deal with, because if the economy is not on the right course, nothing else will matter.''
Marty Durbin, vice president of federal affairs for the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., agreed. ``We are not sure what the brand-new administration is going to do, except that it is going to be more active. But it is all about the economy creating jobs, maintaining jobs, finding ways of growing jobs.''
Obama and the new Congress also are expected to tackle climate change, energy, chemicals management, trade, China's currency, health-care reform and union elections, just to name a few. In addition, Washington-based SPI expects regulatory initiatives on combustible dust, food and drugs, ergonomics and reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act.
``There will be a greater willingness to go down routes that are regulatory, and to take a more active role in environmental safety of products,'' Durbin said.
That will require industry to be more active and possibly take a new tack with legislation and regulatory initiatives. ``There is going to be a lot more give-and-take,'' one industry executive said. ``We can't be against everything.''
But the big industry push will be to gain a favorable economic stimulus package one that gives housing a boost and provides infrastructure spending on roads, bridges and municipal water systems, because all that would create demand for numerous plastic products.
``Obama wants to create 2.5 million jobs,'' Carteaux noted. ``We have to find a way to get engaged in the development of this stimulus package. Plastic pipe goes into water lines, and the housing industry is of critical importance to the plastics industry.'' he said.
To that end, SPI has joined the Fix Housing First Coalition ``to see what we can get in place to jump-start housing,'' Carteaux said.
The expected approach of the Obama administration toward an economic stimulus could work to the plastics industry's advantage, said Neil Pratt, SPI senior director of international trade. He noted that the Obama team is focused on ``massive projects that can immediately pay off.''
``They want shovel-in-the-ground plans,'' Pratt said. ``When you look at the team he has put together, he is building a team for speed. They will be doing a lot more at one time, instead of focusing on individual issues.''
Durbin agreed: ``There will be a greater urgency to get things done.''
What's more, the need for an economic fix is not likely to sidetrack other agenda issues.
``Legislators have their agendas and will go forward regardless,''
said Mike Lynch, government affairs director at Illinois Tool Works Inc. in Glenview, Ill. ``Candidates don't run for office not to do things or to slow down government.''
That concerns Lynch.
``Adding more laws to the books doesn't get us where we need to be,'' he said. Instead, he suggested the administration and Congress should look at whether laws already on the books are really needed.
A study by the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI in Arlington, Va., indicates U.S. manufacturers are at a 32 percent cost disadvantage with nine key competitors because of the cost of regulations, Lynch said.
``If our elected officials would look at the redundant and outdated regulations and laws on the books that play into the cost structure of business, we can be competitive globally without taking retribution on other countries,'' he said.
Beyond the economy, the biggest federal-level issue for ACC is creating a national chemical management system to avoid further chemical-by-chemical rules, such as the phthalates ban passed last year, which goes into effect Feb. 10.
ACC's Durbin said, ``There is a real need for creating a system that will create confidence in how we manage chemicals.''
ACC supported legislation in California last September that created such a system in that state. A federal chemicals management system would take pressure off individual states to act on their own, Carteaux added.
SPI's No. 2 concern is fighting the Employee Free Choice Act, which the trade group said could alter the balance of power between unions and management. Under the proposal, the National Labor Relations Board would be able to eliminate a secret ballot for union elections if it received signed authorization cards from a majority of employees in support of union certification. The bill also would mandate binding arbitration if the sides can't agree on an initial contract in 90 days.
``Historically, our focus has been on pieces of legislation that impact areas where we are a market leader,'' said ITW's Lynch. ``But for the first time in my 21 years at this company, we are getting involved in a broader issue the Employee Free Choice Act. It is an issue that the plastics industry and others need to wrap their heads around, because it may be one of those things that Congress tees up on the 21st of January.''