An Obama-era rule that prevented fossil fuel companies from striking backroom deals with foreign governments is about to be dismantled after Senate Republicans passed a bill early Friday voiding the measure.
In a pre-dawn assembly, the Senate voted along party lines, with Independent Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Angus King (Maine) siding with Democrats against the rule change (roll call here). On Thursday, six Democratic U.S. House representatives voted with their Republican colleagues in backing the measure (roll call here). U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure.
The votes were held mere days after the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, the irony of which was not lost on many who pointed out that, as the former CEO of ExxonMobil, he led the lobby effort to dismantle the legislation, known as the Cardin-Lugar amendment.
"[A] handful of powerful oil and gas companies have been after this requirement from the start—and Exxon is at the top of that list," Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday.
"In fact, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon at the time, personally lobbied against the requirement in 2010. His reason? The foreign payments rule would undermine Exxon's ability to do business in Russia," she said.
"It's pretty gutsy to install the former CEO of America's largest oil company as chief diplomat on the same day that the legislature relieves that oil company of the obligation to disclose payments it makes to the foreign governments with whom that former CEO will be dealing."
—Jay Willis, GQ"Listen to that again," Warren continued. "If Exxon has to tell the world about the millions of dollars it hands over to the Russian government, Exxon won't be able to do as much business in Russia."
"This Exxon giveaway shows just how bankrupt the Republican agenda is," Warren added. "They don't have any ideas for helping working families. It's just one corporate giveaway after another—making their big business donors happy and keeping the campaign contributions flowing for the next election."
Section 1504 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, also known as the "extraction rule," requires companies in oil, gas, and mining industries to disclose payments to governments in the countries where they operate. Trump is also expected to sign an executive order on Friday rolling back Dodd-Frank in its entirety.
"The oil industry is the most corrupt on the planet," the international corruption watchdog Global Witness wrote in response to the votes. "Bringing shady oil deals to light should help ensure these vast public revenues benefit all instead of lining the pockets of corrupt elites."
Similarly, in an op-ed published ahead of the vote, Eric LeCompte, executive director of the faith-based anti-poverty group Jubilee USA Network, argued that dismantling Section 1504 hurts the world's poor. "Bribes and other illicit transactions, including outright theft, by leaders of resource-rich countries perpetuate poverty, fuels conflict, and threatens our national security," he wrote Wednesday.
"These deals deprive some of the world's poorest people of oil wealth that is rightfully theirs," declared Corinna Gilfillan, head of Global Witness's U.S. office.
"As Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson did everything in his power to gut this law, because it doesn't suit big oil's corrupt business model," she continued. Now that he's secretary of State, Gilfillan added, "Congress has immediately sanctioned corruption by green lighting secret deals between oil companies and despots."
But as Gilfillan and others pointed out, the two-fold "gift to big oil" falls in line with the other egregious, pro-corporate, anti-environment steps taken by the Trump administration.
"Given the President's massive conflicts of interest and his administration's broad attacks on regulation, it appears our institutions are increasingly being abused to further the business interests of a powerful few," Gilfillan said. "This is how corrupt dictatorships start."
And GQ's Jay Willis observed on Thursday, "it's pretty gutsy to install the former CEO of America's largest oil company as chief diplomat on the same day that the legislature relieves that oil company of the obligation to disclose payments it makes to the foreign governments with whom that former CEO will be dealing."
"This administration seems determined to operate as a shameless kleptocracy," he added, "but this is just rubbing our noses in it."