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

Published May 26, 2015 Updated May 18, 2018

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. The Trump administration has been actively dismantling science-based health and safety protections. Visit our page on attacks on science to stay up to date on the administration’s latest attempts at sidelining science.

A long list of anti-science bills

Meanwhile , a series of bills have been introduced in the 115th 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.

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 Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) would impose more than 70 new requirements that agencies would have to 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 Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act would effectively prevent the EPA from making use of the best available science when finalizing science-based public health and environmental protections. The bill would require the agency to disclose to the public all raw data, models, code, and other information from scientific studies before taking most science-based actions. As a result, the EPA would be prevented from using public health studies, long-term and meta-analyses, proprietary and innovative science, and industry data when developing public safeguards.

The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act would undermine the Science Advisory Board’s (SAB) function of providing independent scientific advice to EPA officials. The act also opens the door for more industry influence on the SAB, because it explicitly stipulates that experts with financial ties to corporations affected by SAB assessments are “not excluded.” The bill also prohibits researchers from applying for EPA grants for 3 years after their service on the SAB. This misidentifies a connection between the SAB’s work and EPA grants, which are awarded to advance scientific inquiry.

The Midnight Rules Relief Act would perpetuate the disproven myth of “midnight regulations,” or the idea that rules finalized near the end of presidential terms are being rushed to completion and are therefore inadequately vetted. Contrary to what the proposal would suggest, regulations are not expedited at the end of an administration. The bill would allow Congress to circumvent legislative procedure and diminish the capacity of federal agencies to safeguard public health and the environment while undermining robust scientific research and data in the process.

The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS) would politicize the regulatory process by requiring major science-based public health, safety, and environmental safeguards to be approved by both houses of Congress within a narrow timeline. If both houses of Congress failed to act, the rule would not only be prevented from taking effect, but also tabled until the next congressional sessions, no matter how vital it was to protecting public health, safety, and the environment. Currently, federal agencies propose regulations that are based on independent science and are subject to an extensive multi-year review process with several opportunities for public comment for all stakeholders. And while this process is far from perfect, H.R. 26 would override the entire process by imposing a Congressional review with no articulated standards or goals.

The OIRA Insight, Reform, and Accountability Act would subject agency science to judicial review, tying up much-needed safeguards in the courts and causing significant regulatory uncertainty for all stakeholders. The bill would also codify some of the most burdensome requirements of previous Executive Orders while gutting the flexibility that the orders provide to federal agencies. Independent agencies would be weighed down with new analytical requirements, and independent agency rulemaking would be subject to significant political interference.

The Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome Act (SCRUB) would create a retrospective regulatory review commission without issue area experts to find and eliminate regulations based on cost to industries, with no regard for benefits or scientific justification. The bill would create a 1-in, 1-out regulatory budget for agencies, an arbitrary framework that will capriciously put public health and safety at risk.

The Regulatory Integrity Act would freeze agency scientists from communicating with the public on important public health matters. This type of agency muzzling could lead to a lack of transparency in the administration.

The Better Evaluation of Science and Technology Act (BEST) contains ambiguous language that would open agencies like the EPA up to numerous legal challenges. This would result in an enormous resource drain due to the extra time and effort agencies would have to put toward making additional information public and combating industry attacks.

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.

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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