Are Other Science-Based Laws Under Attack Besides the Clean Air Act?

Ask a Scientist - June 2011

C. Gunn, of Longmeadow, MA asks: “I’ve been following recent congressional efforts to undermine the Clean Air Act and limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide. Are other science-based laws also currently under attack?” She is answered by Francesca Grifo, Senior Scientist and Director of the Scientific Integrity Program.

Unfortunately, the short answer is unequivocally “yes.” Given the current emphasis in Congress on budget deficits, many senators and representatives are using the pretext of fiscal austerity to craft bills designed to undermine the science-based standards that not only keep our air and water clean, but also keep our food, drugs, cars, and other products safe.

First of all, as you probably know, congressional attacks on the Clean Air Act continue. This battle is shaping up to be a major one, but UCS has been fighting back against these attacks and continues to work to protect the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) authority to reduce emissions that cause global warming. But we’re also facing similar challenges on a number of other fronts as well. Let me give you three quick examples.

One House bill in the legislative pipeline (called H.R. 1939, the Enhancing CPSC Authority and Discretion Act of 2011), would significantly diminish consumer protections at the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC is the independent federal government agency that, since 1972, has overseen the safety of some 15,000 consumer products—from baby cribs to power tools. UCS is part of a broad coalition of public-interest groups opposing this proposed legislation because it would weaken provisions requiring third-party testing of children’s products and water down strict rules governing lead levels in children’s toys. Equally important, the proposed bill would undermine the CPSC’s brand-new consumer database (available at http://saferproducts.gov) that allows the public to report product safety hazards, providing consumers with quicker information about potential hazards and recalls, increasing transparency, and helping to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries. This proposed bill would place onerous hurdles on those seeking to report a safety problem, while giving manufacturers more opportunities to prevent the posting of negative reports about their products. The effect would be to seriously diminish the sharing of potentially life-saving information among consumers, companies, and the government.

Another legislative initiative in both the House and Senate is known as the REINS Act (H.R. 10/ S.299, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2011). This legislation would threaten critical public protections by requiring that any significant new rules (with an impact of $100 million or more) at any federal agencies—including rules designed to protect public health and safety—could only be implemented when approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president within an implausibly tight deadline of 70 legislative days. Rules not affirmatively approved in this manner would be automatically rejected.

This badly misguided legislative initiative would, at the very least, delay agency work on important standards. At worst, it would kill new and newly updated rules crucial to public health and safety. If passed, the REINS Act would threaten public health by making it more difficult for the Food and Drug Administration to ensure the safety of food and prescription drugs and new environmental rules to protect our children from asthma and water-borne illness and chemical contamination would likely be jeopardized. In short, the REINS Act would politicize what should be science-based assessments on a host of issues at a wide array of federal agencies.

Because of this, UCS has been strenuously opposing this effort through letters and briefings of congressional staff. In addition, UCS is co-leading a broad-based coalition of more than 60 consumer, public health, scientific, environmental, labor, and faith groups working to oppose these efforts to roll back crucial public protections and undermine the work of agencies to implement public health and environmental laws fully informed by independent science.

Equally troubling was Congress’s decision earlier this year to inject politics into the Endangered Species Act when it approved an unrelated amendment to budget legislation that removed gray wolves in the Northern Rockies from the Endangered Species List in every state except Wyoming. The move was significant because politicians had never before interfered in the scientific process to decide whether a particular species deserves protection. By subjecting this formerly science-based policy process of the Endangered Species Act to political interference, this congressional action set a dangerous precedent. The Endangered Species Act has been successful precisely because protection decisions have always been based solely on scientific information. While non-scientific factors may appropriately be considered at points later in the process, their use in decisions about what species to protect is inconsistent with the biologically defensible principles of the Endangered Species Act. That politics intruded is a serious blow to the science-based integrity of one of our key environmental laws.

UCS helped organize nearly 1,300 scientists with biological expertise to voice their opposition to this politicization and we are working hard to fight back against these kinds of attacks on science-based laws and processes wherever they arise. Given the current political climate in Congress, we have our work cut out for us. But our team is actively engaged in this work and the challenge is part of what has kept my job exciting and compelling since I came to UCS six years ago. Our website points to lots ways in which you can join our efforts. We appreciate your help and support.  

Dr. Francesca Grifo is the senior scientist and director of the Scientific Integrity Program at UCS. She has a doctorate in botany from Cornell and a bachelor's degree in biology from Smith College. Before joining UCS she directed Columbia University's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation graduate policy workshop and ran the Science Teachers Environmental Education Program. Prior to that, she was director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation and a curator of the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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