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Hearing of the Intergovernmental Affairs Subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee - Opening Statement of Rep. Palmer, Hearing on Examining "Sue and Settle" Agreements: Part II

Hearing

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Good morning. This hearing is the second part of a set of hearings to
examine the impact of certain federal settlements referred to as "sue and
settle."
The "sue and settle" phenomenon refers to a process where an outside
group will sue a federal agency, state, or local government for an alleged
violation of federal law or constitutional right.
The parties will often choose to settle by entering into a consent decree
agreement rather than face a long and costly trial.
These legally-binding consent decree agreements are then approved by a
judge and enforceable by contempt, and can only be modified by court
order.
Consent decrees can last for decades and end up costing more than if the
parties had gone to trial.
Because parties can use consent decrees to set provisions that extend
beyond the scope of the original violation of law, they have become an
effective tool to circumvent policymaking by elected representatives in
order to push a political agenda across governmental institutions.
These actions place an enormous burden on states, local governments,
industry stakeholders, and taxpayers, who may be shut out of the
negotiations but are left to foot the bill.Under the threat of enforcement by contempt charge, state budgets are
being reorganized. Local governments across the country are spending
multiple decades and billions of dollars to comply with impossible
mandates through never-ending federal oversight. Penalties for the
inevitable violation of decrees redirect funds from these communities to
Washington.
Worse, some feel afraid to speak to Congress about what they are
experiencing. Multiple state and local leaders cited fear of political
retaliation from federal court monitors if they were to appear to testify
before the Committee on this issue.
This is unacceptable and a threat to the principles of Federalism.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed this firsthand in my home state of
Alabama. I watched as a consent decree between Jefferson County and
the Environmental Protection Agency ballooned from $1.5 billion
dollars in estimated cost to over $3 billion to address the storm issue in
Jefferson County. 1
Sewer rates quadrupled over four years in order to pay for the project 2 ,
and Jefferson County became the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy
case in history, until Detroit filed in 2013. 3
Because of incomplete data and a lack of proper categorization, we are
unable to fully evaluate the total amount taxpayers spend as a result of
collusive settlement agreements. For example, in my previous
experience leading an Alabama think tank, I was unable to obtain a complete list of all federal consent decrees that apply to the State from
the Department of Justice because of inadequate recordkeeping.
This lack of transparency limits our constitutional duty to conduct
oversight of the management of taxpayer resources.
It is time for the federal government to move away from emphasizing its
role as prosecutor or political monitor and return to serving as the
American people's partner in setting priorities that best represent their
interest.
Recently, Congressman Doug Collins introduced the Sunshine for
Regulations and Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act of 2017, to
increase transparency and public engagement by ensuring opportunity
for public notice and comment on consent decrees and other settlement
agreements.
I thank Congressman Collins for his leadership on this issue. I look
forward to exploring additional solutions with our panel today.


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