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Congress poised to roll back corruption measure championed by Ben Cardin

Congress poised to roll back corruption measure championed by Ben Cardin
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md. (Lauren Victoria Burke / AP)

Congress is poised to roll back a measure on Friday long championed by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin that requires oil and gas companies to disclose how much they pay to foreign governments -- a once bipartisan effort intended to reduce bribery and corruption.

The underlying law, which Cardin sponsored with former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a Republican, is intended to provide transparency so citizens in mineral-rich countries can hold their governments accountable large payments made by international companies for mining rights.

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But the law, approved as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank overhaul of Wall Street regulations, has faced criticism from oil and gas companies because of compliance costs. The energy industry has also said it puts U.S. companies at a disadvantage when they must compete with state-run firms that don't have to comply with the requirement.

The Senate was expected to vote as early as Friday to roll back not the law itself, but the regulations approved last year by the Securities and Exchange Commission to implement the law. It is one of several regulations congressional Republicans are halting this week -- fulfilling campaign promises made by President Donald Trump.

Senators approved a procedural motion on a 52-48 vote late Thursday to roll back the regulations and were expected to take a final vote early Friday. The House of Representatives approved the same measure Wednesday.

"We're sending a message to corrupt leaders around the world that the United States does not care about corruption, that we will not hold them accountable," said Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"It's not in our interest to stop an anti-corruption rule."

Republicans say the crafting of the regulations have been fraught with problems. The first iteration of the rules, approved in 2012, were challenged in federal court by the Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute. The court tossed that draft a year later, and the Securities and Exchange Commission did not appeal.

The more recent rule was approved in 2015 and finalized by the Obama administration last year.

"Unlike the potential benefits…the costs are reasonably certain," said Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican and the chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. "American businesses could face a competitive disadvantage in cases where their foreign competitors are not subject to similar rules."

Supporters have countered that similar requirements are now in place in dozens of countries, including Canada and European Union. The energy lobby has said the U.S. rule is inconsistent with those other countries.

"The oil and natural gas industry strongly supports transparency and has been a leading advocate for greater transparency for decades," the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement this week.

The measure was set to be approved just days after the Senate confirmed Rex Tillerson's nomination as Trump's Secretary of State. Tillerson, a former CEO at ExxonMobil, had opposed the Cardin-Lugar measure.

Republicans are employing a rarely used tool to roll back some of the rules issued in the final months of President Barack Obama's tenure.

The Congressional Review Act provides a temporary window for a simple majority of both chambers to invalidate a rule. Trump would have to sign the disapproval measure for a regulation to be deemed invalid.

The Senate also gave final approval to a measure Thursday eliminating a rule to prevent coal mining debris from being dumped into nearby streams.

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That regulation could have implications for the dwindling coal industry in Western Maryland. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's administration opposed the rules in 2015.

About 400 Marylanders work in coal mines today and coal production in the state has fallen rapidly in recent years, down 62 percent to 1.9 million tons from 2005 to 2013, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The House, meanwhile, voted 235-180 to curb a regulation extending background checks for disabled Social Security recipients mentally incapable of managing their own affairs. Under the rule, the Social Security Administration had to provide information to the gun-buying background check system on recipients with a mental disorder so severe they cannot work and need someone to handle their benefits.

The rule, finalized in December, was a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in which 20 children and six educators were shot to death. The National Rifle Association said overturning the regulation will protect a broad class of vulnerable citizens from government overreach.

The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, telling lawmakers a disability should not constitute grounds for the automatic denial of any right or privilege, including gun ownership.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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