Can the Democrats rein in the trial lawyers? 

It was said back in the days ofping-pong diplomacy that only President Nixon could go to Red China, thanks to his credibility borne of long years as an ardent foe of world communism. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrat majority in Congress have a similar opportunity now by supporting genuine lawsuit abuse reform and bringing the trial lawyers bar back to reality.

That there is a crying need for lawsuit abuse reform is beyond question. There is substantial evidence of widespread abuse and even fraud at the highest levels of the trial lawyers bar. The costs to consumers and taxpayers are enormous, as the American Tort Reform Association estimates:

» The cost of the U.S. tort system for 2003 was $246 billion, or $845 per citizen or $3,380 for a family of four.

» U.S. tort costs increased 35.4 percent from 2000 to 2003.

» The growth of U.S. tort costs have exceeded the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2-3 percentage points in the past 50 years.

» The U.S. tort system is inefficient; it returns less than 50 cents on the dollar and less than 22 cents for actual economic loss to claimants.

Clearly, trial lawyers for too long have grown rich by using forum shopping, friends on the judicial bench and, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, fraudulent expert witnesses to make the mere prospect of litigation so costly that even Fortune 500 firms find it cheaper to settle. The judicial system thus is seriously warped against providing justice for businesses and consumers.

According to OpenSecrets.org, 18 of the top 20 congressional recipients of these contributions are Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, and Rep. Maria Cantwell, D-WA. During the 2006 election cycle, nearly $65 million, or 71 percent, of all such contributions went to Democrats. The largest of these contributors, the American Trial Lawyers Associationcontributed $24 million from 1989 to 2004, virtually all to Democrats.

For years, most Democrats in Congress have been reliable protectors of the trial lawyers lobby. But these aren’t normal times and Speaker Pelosi appears to be ideally positioned to make the figurative trip to China on this issue. Trial lawyers are by a large margin Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s biggest group of supporters. They also are Pelosi’s top group of contributors, but with a key difference: A much larger portion of her support comes from labor unions, health professionals, securities and investment firms, finance and commercial banks and insurance, groups whose interests often conflict with trial lawyers. Pelosi can show courage in supporting reform with minimal political risk.

Pelosi can show such courage by supporting new versions of two key proposals from the previous Congress, starting with Rep. Lamar Smith’s Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, which passed the House but was never voted on by the Senate.

The second key proposal for Pelosi is Rep. Ric Keller’s Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, the so-called "cheeseburger bill."

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