Attacks on Science-Based Safeguards in Congress: Endangering a Century of Progress

Air pollution filling the skies above a U.S. Steel plant near Pittsburgh in 1973. The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave the EPA the authority to make and enforce rules limiting air pollution. But if bills currently being debated in Congress become law, agencies such as the EPA will face daunting obstacles to doing their legally mandated jobs. (EPA photo)

Only a few generations ago, the United States was a much dirtier, more dangerous place. Our cities were routinely wrapped in a haze of smog. Rivers and harbors were so clogged with pollutants that you could literally set them on fire. Work-related injury and illness claimed far too many lives. Many species were being driven to the brink of extinction—and over it.

Then something remarkable happened. The nation saw the crisis it faced and, through its elected representatives, took action. In the late 20th century, a series of landmark bills, including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, Endangered Species Act, and Occupational Health and Safety Act, made our country a safer, healthier, and more sustainable place to live and work. Most of these bills were passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities.

Despite the remarkable human, environmental and economic benefits they have produced, these 20th-century policy innovations are under attack in the 21st century. A series of bills have been introduced in Congress that would effectively prevent federal agencies from doing the job set for them by law:  using science to enforce the laws that protect our health, safety and environment.

Five worth fighting: A quintet of anti-science bills

On the surface, these bills appeal to principles everyone supports: transparency, accountability, integrity. But a close look at their provisions reveals their real purpose—to weigh agencies down with red tape and pointless hurdles that will make effective enforcement of the law impossible.

The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS) would require that any new or updated rule with an annual economic impact of $100 million or more must be approved by both houses of Congress within 70 legislative days, thus putting science-based policy at the mercy of gridlock. 

The Regulatory Accountability Act would impose more than 70 new requirements that agencies must follow in updating or creating new rules. Among other things, the act requires that when weighing different regulatory options, agencies must default to the option with the lowest costs to business, rather than the option that will best protect the public. It also gives the White House Office of Management and Budget the power to override independent scientific advice.

The Sound Science Act would require agencies to hold additional public comment periods each time a new scientific finding is considered during a rule-making process. It also pre-empts expert judgment by specifying that agencies give “greatest weight to information that is based on experimental, empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible data”. In reality, not all good data answers to those descriptions—and scientists, not legislators, should be making those judgments.

The Secret Science Reform Act would require that all data used by the EPA in rule-making, guidance, or other agency activities be publicly available. This may sound like a laudable effort to ensure transparency, but since much of the data used by the EPA is confidential or proprietary, the bill’s real effect would be to prevent EPA action.

The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act would turn the tables on common notions of independence and conflict of interest: experts with ties to a regulated industry would be encouraged to serve on advisory boards, while academic scientists could serve only if they did not have current EPA grants and promised not to apply for grants for three years after their committee service. The bill also would give special interests the opportunity to comment—without any time limit—on the “state of the science”’ even on issues where the science is settled.

The false premises driving anti-science legislation

These bills vary in their approaches, but they reflect a shared set of flawed assumptions about the current state of government science:

  • They assume that there is a serious problem of agency overreach. In reality, agencies are doing the job that Congress itself has mandated for them. When they do overstep their bounds, there are opportunities built into the system to correct this, including judicial oversight.
  • They assume that industry needs more influence over the regulatory process, even though industry already has a formidable advantage in technical expertise and advocacy resources over community groups, civil society organizations, and other non-corporate stakeholders.
  • They assume that the economic impact of regulation is all cost and no benefit. In fact, many regulations have been shown to provide economic benefits that far outweigh the costs.
  • They suggest inappropriate secrecy and wrongdoing by agencies that already offer multiple opportunities for public input and public oversight of the decisions they make.

Improving the use of science in making policy is worth doing. However, legislation that creates new procedural roadblocks, pre-empts scientific expertise, or amplifies the already powerful voice of industry at the expense of other voices will not help achieve this goal.

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