Union of Concerned ScientistsScience and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Thu, 22 Feb 2018 18:21:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Science and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 The Science of Voting Rights + An Interview with Matt Dunlap https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/the-science-of-voting-rights https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/the-science-of-voting-rights#respond Thu, 22 Feb 2018 15:00:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56866
Photo: Denise Cross Photography/Flickr

My first podcast with UCS has been posted this week, where we talk about the science of representation and the role that science plays in election law and voting rights. This was recorded before the new Pennsylvania Congressional map was released, so we don’t get into those details, but we do discuss gerrymandering, scientific standards for measuring it, and how science informs us about the consequences of choosing electoral institutions.  You can listen to the podcast here:

When Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap agreed to serve on President Trump’s “Election Integrity” commission, election scholars, myself included, roundly criticized him for legitimizing a nakedly partisan attempt to indulge the President’s fantasies about why he failed to win the popular vote. It was clear from President Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric, and its partisan membership, that the Commission would be used as a vehicle to nullify the National Voter Registration Act and restrict voting access across the country.

But on December 22nd, 2017, when a federal judge ordered Commission Chair Kris Kobach to hand over records about correspondence that was concealed from Mr. Dunlap as a member, it was the beginning of the end.  By early January, the White House acknowledged defeat: “Rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense, today President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order to dissolve the Commission, and has asked the Department of Homeland Security to review these issues and determine next courses of action.”

Mr. Dunlap’s pursuit of transparency is a crucial example of how a commitment to science-based policy and integrity can protect citizens from government agencies betraying the public interest. In early February, I sat down with Dunlap for an extended interview. We discussed his decision to serve, his experience as a member of the Commission, and the events that led to his lawsuit against the Commission. Below is part of our interview.



In the future, we will also share our conversation with Dunlap about his role as top election official in the first U.S. state to adopt Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), which will make its debut in the Maine June primary.

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There Are Better Things in France for Trump to Emulate Than a Military Parade https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/there-are-better-things-in-france-for-trump-to-emulate-than-a-military-parade https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/there-are-better-things-in-france-for-trump-to-emulate-than-a-military-parade#comments Thu, 22 Feb 2018 14:31:15 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56930
President Trump and French President Macron review troops during the Bastille Day parade last July.

President Trump was so impressed by the military parade he saw in Paris on Bastille Day last July that he ordered the Pentagon to plan a bigger one for Washington, D.C.

“It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” Trump told reporters when he met with French President Emmanuel Macron in New York in September for the opening of the UN General Assembly. “It was two hours on the button, and it was military might, and I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France. We’re going to have to try to top it.”

Of course Trump wants to top it. All things Trump are always “huge,” from his inauguration day crowd to his nuclear button to his tax cut. But if the president really wants to outdo France, below are some tremendous French things that the United States would do well to emulate.

The French are safer

After the mass shooting last week at a Florida high school, Trump tweeted his “prayers and condolences” to the victims’ families. His initial comments also focused on mental health, not guns, despite the fact that early last year he signed a bill revoking an Obama-era rule that made it harder for mentally ill people to buy firearms.

The French, by contrast, do a lot more than offer empty platitudes: They have stringent gun laws. French citizens who want to buy a gun have to apply for a hunting or sporting license, which requires a psychological evaluation and, if acquired, must be renewed every five years. Gun sales, meanwhile, are tightly regulated and require official background checks.

Stricter controls definitely make a difference: France has significantly fewer guns in civilian hands and fewer gun-related deaths per capita than the United States.

In 2013, for example, there were an estimated 10 million guns, both legal and illegal, in France, which at the time had a population of 66 million. That year, 1,750 people were killed by firearms, amounting to 2.65 deaths per 100,000 people.

By contrast, the United States, with a population of 316.2 million in 2013, had an estimated 357 million guns in circulation—more than one gun per person. That year, there were 33,636 US gun deaths, or 10.64 deaths per 100,000—four times the rate in France.

They’re healthier, too

White House doctor Ronny Jackson assured Americans in January that President Trump is in “excellent health.” Given the results of Trump’s physical exam, that’s debatable, but the health of the US health care system is not. It’s in bad shape, especially when compared with France’s.

France’s public-private hybrid health care system is consistently rated among the best in the world. Last year, for example, France placed 18th in the health category in the Legatum Institute’s annual Prosperity Index, which ranks 149 countries on health outcomes, economic performance, education quality, and six other categories. The United States health care system, meanwhile, came in 30th.

Like every other industrialized nation besides the United States, France has universal health coverage. All French citizens are covered by the government’s Assurance Maladie, and most also have private insurance through their job or the private market. The government sets prices for appointments and procedures and reimburses them at 70 percent. It’s similar to Medicare and Medicaid, but because the system covers the entire population, the French government has more leverage to keep prices low.

The United States spends more than twice per capita on health care than France, but French babies have a better chance of staying alive and living longer than American newborns. France’s infant mortality rate, according to 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) data, is 3.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. At 5.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, US infant mortality is higher than in any comparable industrialized democracy. And at the end of life, France boasted a combined male and female life expectancy of 82.4 years, putting it in 9th place in a 2015 WHO survey. The United States, by contrast, ranked 31st, with a combined life expectancy of 79.3 years.

They eat better

France’s obesity rate is 15.3 percent, slightly better than the 15.9 percent for the entire European Union. By contrast, nearly 38 percent of American adults are obese, including President Trump, who apparently fudged his height to avoid being classified that way.

French and US stats on food and farming tell a similar disparate story. In 2017, France ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row in the Food Sustainability Index, which grades 34 countries worldwide in three categories: food loss and waste, nutrition policies, and sustainable agriculture. It bested every other country in reducing food waste and came in fourth in nutrition on the strength of its programs that promote healthy diets. In the sustainable agriculture category, it placed third, largely due to a national agro-ecology program that, among other things, is encouraging farmers to cut their pesticide use in half by 2025 and rotate their crops to increase soil fertility.

The United States, conversely, ranked 21st overall, mainly because of policies that cultivate bad eating habits and destructive industrial farming practices. The fact that Americans consume high levels of meat, saturated fat and sugar placed the United States 24th in the nutrition category. Only Australians eat more meat than Americans, but not by much, and US sugar consumption is the highest among all of countries in the study. The result? More than 40 percent of American children are overweight, the most in any of the countries surveyed.

At 31st out of 34, the US ranking for sustainable agriculture is even more worrisome. Only India, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates ranked lower. The low US score is attributable to a number of factors, including livestock production, which strains water resources and emits methane, and the fact that a tiny fraction of agricultural land is devoted to organic farming while nearly a quarter is used for biofuel production and animal feed.

They make education more affordable

France starts children off with free, universal preschool at écoles maternelles. With 100 percent preschool enrollment for 3- to 5-year-olds, the country ranked first among developed countries in 2014, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international association.

The United States, where some states offer preschool programs from age 4 but most offer nothing at all, ranked 36th out of the 40 nations OECD surveyed. In 2015, only about a third of American 3-year-olds and 60 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Most schools of higher education in France, meanwhile, are state-subsidized, which keeps tuition relatively low, even by European standards.

In 2007, the average public university in France charged $234 per year (189 euros) for a bachelor’s degree, $321 for a master’s degree, $487 for a doctorate, and $757 for an engineering degree. The average bachelor’s degree takes three to four years, so students spend $702 to $936 for their entire undergraduate education. There are pricier options, but compared to the cost of higher education in the United States, they are still a bargain.

The United States is home to the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world, but they are also among the most expensive. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board.

The high cost of a college diploma saddles American grads with debt that can dog them for much of their adult life. Currently there are more than 44 million borrowers with more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, which after home mortgages is the highest consumer debt category in the United States. For the class of 2016, the average student loan debt was $37,172.

They treat workers better

The national minimum wage in France is 9.88 euros an hour, the equivalent of $12.25 an hour in the United States. The US national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, although some states and municipalities now require as much as $15.

The official work week in France is 35 hours, so a French employee making minimum wage would gross the equivalent of $22,297 a year and is entitled to health care coverage, a minimum of five weeks paid vacation and 11 national holidays, as many as 90 days paid time off, and a maximum of three years of medical leave pay, which is covered by the state social security system. Maternity leave, which is at least six weeks before childbirth and 10 weeks afterward, is paid.

Most minimum wage employees in the United States working 40 hours a week gross $15,080 a year. Employers with more than 50 employees are required to offer health care benefits or pay a penalty, and most provide only two weeks paid vacation along with 10 federal holidays. Employers with 50 or more employees also are required to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity (or adoption) leave or family sick leave.

At the other end of the pay scale, US CEOs make considerably more than their counterparts in other industrialized countries when compared to what average workers earn. In 2014, the ratio between CEO and average worker pay in the United States was 354 to 1, meaning that for every dollar an employee got paid, the head of the company made $354, far outpacing the 148 to 1 ratio in Switzerland, the country with the second highest pay gap. In France, the ratio was 104 to 1.

They’re downplaying the role of nuclear weapons

France, which has always maintained a much smaller nuclear force than the United States, currently has a total of 300 warheads deployed on submarines and bombers. In the 1990s, it eliminated its land-based missiles and signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The United States, conversely, has some 1,590 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on submarines, bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as well as 2,390 redeployable warheads currently stored in a “hedge” stockpile, some 500 smaller deployed and stockpiled tactical (battlefield) warheads, and an estimated 2,300 retired warheads slated for dismantlement. The United States signed the CTBT the same time France did, but 22 years later, the US Senate has still not ratified it.

ICBMs pose a big problem. The United States keeps them on hair-trigger alert, which dramatically increases the chance of an accidental, erroneous or unauthorized launch in response to a false alarm, a much more likely scenario than an actual attack. A number of retired generals and former high-level government officials have called for taking ICBMs off high-alert status, while others have called for scrapping them altogether. Under the Trump administration, taking ICBMs off hair-trigger alert or retiring them are highly unlikely possibilities, and the Pentagon’s recently released Nuclear Posture Review lowers the threshold for nuclear use.

They do a better job protecting the environment

Two recent studies ranked France way ahead of the United States when it comes to environmental protection. In the aforementioned Legatum Prosperity Index, France placed 4th out of the 149 nations surveyed. The United States was 34th. The second study, published annually by the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators program, rated US environmental policies 39th out of 41 countries, mainly because of the US government’s inability to seriously address climate change. France, on the other hand, ranked 12th, largely because of its leadership in international climate diplomacy.

France’s climate leadership is evidenced by its binding commitment as a signatory to the Paris climate agreement to reduce its domestic emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. By contrast, the Trump administration announced it was pulling out of the accord (which it cannot officially do until November 5, 2020—the day after the next presidential election) and made it clear it has no intention of honoring the US national pledge.

As part of its plan to meet its Paris accord targets, the French government announced last July that it will ban the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, and French automakers are already doing their part. Peugeot, Citroën and Renault ranked first, second and fourth on a 2017 list of large car manufacturers with the lowest carbon emissions, and Renault started selling battery-powered cars in 2011.

The Trump administration, conversely, wants to weaken fuel economy standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission is now considering permitting an average fleetwide standard of 36.7 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2026, considerably less than the 46.6 mpg requirement imposed by the Obama administration with the auto industry’s consent. According to an Environmental Protection Agency analysis, such a rollback would mean cars and light trucks would emit at least a half a billion more tons of carbon pollution and consume an extra 50 billion gallons of fuel over their lifetimes.

They hold cleaner elections

Unlike the US system of legalized bribery, French campaign finance laws keep special interest money out of politics. French citizens can contribute as much as $5,750 (4,600 euros) to one or more candidates for a specific election, but corporations, unions and advocacy groups are not allowed to donate to political campaigns or parties. In addition, the government has placed limits on campaign expenditures pegged to the office level. Electoral campaigns are relatively brief, and national television and radio stations air political ads free of charge for all candidates during the three months preceding an election. All paid political ads during that time are prohibited. Citizens are automatically registered to vote when they reach the age of 18, and elections are held on a Sunday to make it easier for people to vote.

Restraining corporate influence in elections is one of the key reasons France outpaces the United States in many of the categories cited above. While special interests—from the gun lobby to industrial polluters to Wall Street—keep US politicians on a tight leash, French elected officials are freer to represent the interests of their constituents, not the narrow interests of deep-pocketed campaign contributors and unregulated super PACs.

So, Mr. President, instead of spending as much as $50 million on parade displaying overpriced military hardware, how about trying to top some of these much more significant French accomplishments? America has proven time and time again that it can outperform the rest of the world, but history has also shown that it takes leadership to do it.

Dave Cooke, Marcia DeLonge, Joshua Goldman, Chanelle Kacy-Dunlap, Rachel Licker and David Wright provided research assistance for this essay.




White House
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And Then They Came for the Social Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/and-then-they-came-for-the-social-scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org/jacob-carter/and-then-they-came-for-the-social-scientists#respond Wed, 21 Feb 2018 21:53:46 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56546

Drug overdose deaths in 2016 most likely exceeded 63,000. Most of these deaths (about 42,200) are due to the family of painkillers known as opioids, which includes legally prescribed medications used to treat pain such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. To put into perspective how alarming this number is:  approximately 41,000 Americans die annually from breast cancer, more than 43,000 died due to HIV/AIDS during the peak of the epidemic in 1995, and approximately 40,000 Americans died from gun-related injuries during the peak of this issue in 1993.

In October 2017, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction issued its final report a week later with more than 50 recommendations to solve America’s opioid crisis. But public experts say that the Trump administration is failing to act on these recommendations. “You don’t call it an emergency and sit around do nothing about it,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “The doing something should be a plan from the agencies … and it should be seeking money from Congress.”

Social scientists and their expertise will be required to solve many of America’s public health issues, including the opioid crisis. To more fully understanding the linkages between our DNA and a person’s predisposition to addiction, to investigating the social externalities that may result in one seeking out opioids, social scientists are needed to research these issues. Social science also is needed to help solve other important public health issues in the US such as the country’s high number of mass shootings and other gun-related deaths, especially those associated with racism. While the Trump administration’s war on science has been well-documented on issues such as climate change, there are now some signals that this administration may ramp up attacks on social science.

Evidence-based treatments targeted

“The therapies that you use have to be evidence-based, otherwise you don’t know if they actually work and you want to do what is best for you clients to help them” Dr. Danya Goodman, a Boston-based psychologist who has worked with veterans with histories of trauma and substance abuse at the Boston VA, told me on the phone when I asked her about the importance of science in her practice. “Psychologists rely on science—to help us determine the difference between practices supported by anecdotes versus data.”

Dr. Goodman also noted that when every minute of your time is being focused on clients, like at a community mental health center, you may not have the time or resources to fully review the peer-reviewed literature to assess what therapies or programs are most effective for treating your clients. This is one of the reasons why the federal government made accessible a database to help these busy practitioners find effective, proven, evidence-based programs that work to both prevent and treat substance abuse and other behavioral health problems. The database is known as the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP) and is housed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) within the department of Health and Human Services. NREPP was established to screen different therapy practices and programs to determine which are effective and which are not effective.

During December, 2017 the Trump administration ended the NREPP contract, which means that the database will no longer be updated, at least for now. SAMHSA has said that future work on NREPP would be moved “in-house,” but many are questioning if the work will truly continue, and the agency has yet to announce a plan on how it will continue updating NREPP. Maybe this is part of the Administration’s push to ban words such as “evidence-based” across federal agencies?

Key social science research on gun violence restricted

Even after the occurrence of another mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida, government research on gun violence is still not allowed. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been banned from studying gun violence since 1996 due to an amendment on a spending bill that prevents the CDC from using money to “advocate or promote gun control.”

Social scientists have suggested that gun violence would decline in the US if we understood more about it. Some social science research priorities were pointed out by a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, including: what motivates people to acquire guns? What groups and sub-groups are more at risk of being victimized? Which prevention strategies and interventions work to curb gun violence, and for whom do they work?

There are so many important research questions that demand exploration; yet, our government scientists are barred from studying them even though they have pleaded to do so.

Experts on substance abuse sidelined

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was chosen to lead the President’s opioids agenda. With President Trump choosing one of his senior advisors to lead the charge on the opioid crisis, some viewed this as the President taking this issue seriously. But Conway seems to be keeping out the government’s own experts from any of the White House’s discussions on the matter. More specifically, the administration is excluding career staffers from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)—the office that has guided drug policy since President Reagan was in office. “It’s fair to say the ONDCP has pretty much been systematically excluded from key decisions about opioids and the strategy moving forward,” said a former Trump administration staffer.

The exclusion of experts at the table may not be a surprise given that the Trump administration has consistently sidelined experts from advisory committees, or that they are expected to target ONDCP for massive budget cuts, or that the senior most official in the administration leading US drug policy for a while was a 24-year-old Trump campaign staffer who had no professional experience in developing or implementing drug policy, let alone leading a federal government agency.

All talk, no action

The Trump administration has been all talk and no action on important public health and social science issues. It is rumored that the Trump administration planned to air a Super Bowl ad to bring attention to the opioid crisis, but this didn’t happen. The administration also has produced a report with many recommendations aimed at ending the opioid crisis, yet has failed to act on them. Many congressional members have offered their thoughts and prayers to victims of mass shootings, but haven’t acted to solve this public health crisis.

I asked Dr. Goodman if the halting of NREPP, the Trump administration’s inaction on the opioid crisis, and preventing social science experts from providing input or doing research may send a message to the social science community that their work is not valued. “I think this administration is attacking all science, and generally has a distaste for truth.” She let out an exasperated sigh before continuing, “These attacks on social science are just another example of that and, unfortunately, they will undermine those people who are less fortunate in the US.”



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Pennsylvania’s New Congressional Map is Fair, But Reveals Fundamental Tradeoffs in Institutional Choice https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/pennsylvanias-new-congressional-map-is-fair-but-reveals-fundamental-tradeoffs-in-institutional-choice https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/pennsylvanias-new-congressional-map-is-fair-but-reveals-fundamental-tradeoffs-in-institutional-choice#respond Wed, 21 Feb 2018 20:02:12 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56853

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released its much-awaited Congressional redistricting plan to replace a 2012 Republican-drawn plan which it recently ruled to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The new plan is unquestionably more fair, ensuring at least two more seats for Democratic voters who currently hold only 5 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats, despite composing about half of the statewide electorate. However, the new plan, and others proposed over the last week, reveal a fundamental limitation of our electoral system that should concern not just the Democratic Party, but anyone concerned about political equality.

All of the non-partisan plans submitted would have been an improvement over the GOP gerrymander, but the Pennsylvania court’s requirements for the new plan included incompatible design principles. Analysis of the plans hints at a future where a majority of voters may routinely be denied a majority of seats in competitive swing states.

New PA map

Figure 1: Pennsylvania’s new Congressional map: fairness wins

The new plan creates 8 districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 10 won by Donald Trump, though Democrats could pick up as many as 11 seats in 2018 if everything goes their way.  It is clear that Nathaniel Persily, who designed the map, explicitly prioritized fairness in the design. Nevertheless, most initial estimates, while based on incomplete data, suggest that the plan still slightly favors the Republican Party.  That is, at a 50% vote split, GOP voters have a better chance of winning 10 of 18 seats, compared to Democratic voters. Why?

As Sam Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, showed in a weekend analysis, most of the submitted plans yielded 6 to 8 safe seats for Democrats, 9 safe Republican seats, and more seats that lean to Republicans over Democrats. Arguably the fairest plans were those submitted by Adele Schneider and Stephen Wolf at Daily Kos, which had the two parties likely to split nine seats, and restrained partisan asymmetry (measured in terms of partisan bias) to just under statistical significance.

The crucial dynamic at play is the interaction between incompatible design principles. The court explicitly wanted a plan that cut across fewer country and municipal boundaries, with geographically compact, single-seat districts, that nevertheless treat individual voters equally, regardless of which party they vote for.

In our 2016 book Gerrymandering in America, my co-authors Anthony J. McGann, Charles Anthony Smith, Alex Keena and I demonstrated that it is generally easy to create fair districting plans, but that there are trade-offs between principles. While there is a tendency to think of the concentration of Democrats in dense, urban populations as a “natural” geographic disadvantage in districting, it is important to keep in mind that there is nothing “natural” about compactness, boundary-crossing, or the use of single-seat districts. These are political choices with political consequences.

Figure 2: Redistricting Chicago-Style

For example, the 2011 Illinois state legislature, controlled by the Democratic Party, was able to draw an unbiased plan (though not one that benefited them), but at a cost of drawing some odd looking, non-compact districts. I think of this as a “Chicago-style” plan, as Congressional districts spread out from Chicago, like slices of deep-dish pizza, to incorporate more conservative suburbs into the densely Democratic city districts. This illustrates the trade-off between the geographic goal of compactness and the individual goal of political equality.

Figure 3: Philly-Chicago-style: Less compact districts yield 8 safe Dem seats, 2 lean Dem seats, 4 lean R seats, 4 safe R seats.  Do these districts look more like pizza slices or cheesesteaks?

I tried to replicate this in Philadelphia using Dave’s Redistricting App, but still could only produce a map with 8 safe Dem seats and 2 Dem-leaning seats (though with more tossups). Even without prioritizing compactness, it is difficult to assure that the party winning a majority of the vote will receive a majority of the seats. And here is the rub: if urban Democrats become increasingly segregated with increased partisan polarization, it is not just compactness that creates a fundamental restraint on how fair a plan can be. It is not just urban Democrats who waste votes under urban-rural polarization, it is all minority voters, Republicans in cities as well as rural Democrats, who still typically make up 30-35% of rural voters.

Figure 4: Multi-Seat Districts in PA; Blue (2R/3D), Yellow (2R/2D/1?), Red (2R/1D), Green (2R/3D)

Our reliance on single-seat districts puts limits on our ability to remedy discriminatory districting of any kind. To see the effect of this institutional choice, consider the possibility of multi-seat districts in Pennsylvania. I designed a plan using three 5-seat districts and one 3-seat district. The large, red district reflects the three seats allocated in the most rural part of the state. Assume that an electoral formula is used to allocate seats to party candidates proportionately. Further, assume that the Republican and Democratic parties would not have any additional competition (a risky assumption, but that’s a separate story).

The “eastern” district next to Philadelphia would lean slightly Democratic (average party vote 54% Dem, 46% GOP) while the “western” district with Pittsburgh likely yield two seats to each party, with a toss-up seat. Overall results would more proportional, and more likely to respect statewide majority rule. Further, parties would have an incentive to compete for votes throughout the entire state. In terms of racial dynamics, the Philadelphia district is approximately 25% African-American and 8% Hispanic, such that racial bloc voting would likely produce multiple racial minority seats (a candidate with 20% of the vote is guaranteed a seat). The western district, with Pittsburgh and other racially diverse cities in South Pennsylvania, would also have a good shot at electing a candidate strongly supported by people of color.

The importance of district boundary locations also begins to fade, as they are less consequential in shaping electoral outcomes. Three 6-seat districts in Pennsylvania could be designed to send equal numbers of candidates from both parties, and a single, 18-seat district would guarantee majority rule and political equality with only one district boundary, the state.

If the current trend of urban-rural partisan polarization continues, even a clear standard against unconstitutional gerrymandering and strict enforcement of voting rights may not be enough to protect majority rule and political equality. For all the work that we are putting into fixing our single-seat system, its inherent limitations could actually become more apparent.

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Court To Decide Fate Of EPA’s Chemical Disaster Rule https://blog.ucsusa.org/josh-goldman/court-to-decide-fate-of-epas-chemical-disaster-rule https://blog.ucsusa.org/josh-goldman/court-to-decide-fate-of-epas-chemical-disaster-rule#comments Tue, 20 Feb 2018 18:29:37 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56837
Photo: US Department of Energy

Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a 20-month delay EPA Administrator Pruitt put on standards designed to prevent accidents at facilities that use or store hazardous chemicals. On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is scheduled to hold a public oral hearing on this case, which pits environmental justice communities, scientists, public health advocates, and others against the EPA – whose very mission is to protect public health.

Why we need updated chemical safety regulations

As my colleagues Yogin and Kathy have detailed, chemical-related accidents happen like clockwork. Over 2,000 incidents were reported between 2004 and 2013, and lives were lost. Over 17,000 people were injured and 59 people were killed during this period, and over 400,000 people experienced evacuations or shelter-in place orders because of a chemical-related accident at a facility covered by the rules delayed by EPA.

For years, community groups, environmental organizations, and labor groups lobbied for stronger chemical disaster prevention rules. In 2013, President Obama finally issued an Executive Order directing federal agencies to enhance chemical facility safety. EPA then undertook a multi-year effort of stakeholder engagement and requests for information in the run-up to a proposed rule. After receiving comments from the regulated industry, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders, a rule was finalized in January . The updated rule, which modernized the EPA’s Risk Management Program, was scheduled to go into effect March 14, 2017, though some of the provisions were scheduled to phase in over time, some as far out as 2022, which gave the covered facilities some flexibility in figuring out how to comply with the updated requirements. Upon entering office, Administrator Pruitt put this rule on hold until February 2019, almost 2 years later than the rule was supposed to go into effect. This decision prompted the legal challenge from UCS and others.

Smoke and flames rise from the flooded Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, after two trailers of highly unstable compounds blew up. First responders filed a lawsuit saying they weren’t properly warned of risks while responding to an Arkema facility explosion after Hurricane Harvey. Image via: Associated Press / WSJ.

What’s next for the EPA risk management program

There are heavy hitters on both sides of this case. The plaintiffs are a coalition of scientists, fenceline communities, public health advocates, the United Steelworkers (North America’s largest industrial labor union) the EPA, and the DOJ. The case will likely hinge on a judicial interpretation of whether EPA has the authority to delay rules as long as they wish, or whether the agency must adhere to the Clean Air Act’s directive that any reconsideration of a rule “shall not postpone the effectiveness” of the rule for longer than three months (emphasis added).

Interested in more of the legal theory? Read the excellent brief filed by our council Earthjustice here, or let me know if you would like a more in-depth debrief. Stay tuned for the result. The safety of many communities across the country will hinge on it.

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CDC Scientists Plea to Congress: Let Us Research Gun Violence https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/cdc-scientists-plea-to-congress-let-us-research-gun-violence https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/cdc-scientists-plea-to-congress-let-us-research-gun-violence#comments Fri, 16 Feb 2018 18:53:04 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56820

This past Wednesday, our nation bore witness as another gun-related tragedy unfolded, this time at a high school. Seventeen people were shot and killed, more than two dozen others wounded at Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, Florida after a heavily armed, former student of the school brazenly opened fire on unsuspecting, innocent teachers and pupils. There have been 290 school shootings since 2013, 1,333 mass shootings since 2014, and 56,755 deaths by guns since 2014– yet our government does not deem gun violence to be a public health concern worth researching. We must support scientists to do the necessary work that would shed light on how to protect the public. How many firearm casualties must there be to justify use of federal investment for research into the safety of this country’s residents?

Government scientists understand the value in studying gun violence, but we won’t allow them to do their jobs. As my colleague mentioned yesterday, a policy rider that has been including in spending bills since 1996 effectively bans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from researching gun violence. The so called the Dickey amendment has not definitively outlawed research on gun violence and safety, but Congress “coincidentally” removed funding from the CDC to the exact amount it once spent on that research. This sends the message to CDC scientists that such research is strongly discouraged, deprioritized, and ultimately, it is not conducted.

Scientists Survey: Scientists Feel Restricted on Gun Research

Scientists are still feeling the effects of that decision two-decades later. In 2015, the Center for Science and Democracy (CSD) at UCS, long committed to protecting scientific integrity at federal agencies, conducted a survey of federal scientists, including scientists at the CDC. The purpose of the survey was to ascertain how scientists felt about the state of scientific integrity at their respective agencies, and to glean how effective science-based agencies were at meeting their missions. Several scientists at the CDC voiced their concerns about Congress and interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) interfering in their work – especially related to gun violence research. Here are a few of the most poignant comments from CDC scientists:

  • “The integrity of the scientific work would be improved if the National Rifle Association did not prevent CDC from doing more research on gun violence in the U.S.”
  • “…I am not aware of the instances where internal processes for CDC’s decisions and other activities have been inappropriately affected by influence from industry or related interest groups. Yet, it is fresh in my memory that due to the influence from the congress CDC has not been able to engage in research on guns. In my view the widespread availability of guns is a major public health issue of the U.S. The congressional influence has limited CDC’s capacity to address this issue, and I strongly hope the ‘ban’ be lifted in the future.”
  • “The main concern I have is about Congressional interference in scientific and epidemiological studies that relate to gun violence (i.e., cutting the funding for this type of research). This is a clear example of political interests preventing the advance of public health knowledge and practice.”

Earlier this week, CSD launched the most recent iteration of the scientist survey, adding scientists from 12 more agencies and bureaus to the list. It will be interesting to see if CDC respondents will have more or less to add on the issue of gun research this time around. Their (anonymous) input will be extremely useful for helping shape recommendations for agencies on scientific integrity, and potentially a good tool to push Congress toward finally allowing scientists to study how our nation might address this growing public health threat.

Yesterday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar kind of opened the door on lifting the research ban at CDC (which is a part of his agency), by telling Rep. Kathy Castor in a congressional hearing that he believes the “poison-pill” policy rider doesn’t prevent CDC scientists from doing their job. When asked if he would be more “proactive” on gun violence research at the CDC, Secretary Azar said that the agency will. Hopefully, congressional appropriators will see the secretary’s comments and remove this anti-science policy rider in the next spending agreement and CDC scientists will see an on-the-ground change where the agency leadership will encourage research on this public health crisis. You can bet that UCS will be looking to hold Secretary Azar and other administration leaders accountable and hold them to this commitment.

The families of victims need more than thoughts and prayers; they need action. They need policies. They need gun reform based on scientific research. And to do that, as policymakers have said themselves, we need data to ensure the most effective measures are taken.

Cara Loughran. Alyssa Alhadeff. Scott Beigel. Nicholas Dworet. Aaron Feis. Jaime Guttenberg. Chris Hixon. Peter Wang. Alaina Petty. Luke Hoyer. Carmen Schentrup. Joaquin Olivier. Meadow Pollack. Gina Montalto. Martin Duque. Alex Schachter. Helena Ramsay.

These are real people, just as the victims of every senseless act of gun violence are. They are not just statistics. Let’s have a moment of silence to reflect on their lives, their untimely deaths – but let’s not remain silent on pushing for gun violence safety research and science-based policies that can follow.

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Science For Justice: A New Blog Series https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/science-for-justice-a-new-blog-series https://blog.ucsusa.org/charise-johnson/science-for-justice-a-new-blog-series#respond Thu, 15 Feb 2018 18:03:22 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56729

Science and social justice are inextricably linked. Science provides the foundation for a strong democracy, and is critical to improving and maintaining quality of life. Evidence-based public safeguards are vital to protecting the health, safety, and well-being of communities and individuals.

But the reality is that scientific evidence has been used to justify oppressive behaviors and disenfranchisement of certain groups in our nation. Historically, people have been made targets of unfair practices based on their race, religion, country of origin, gender and sexuality—both systemically and individually. Laws meant to improve lives in America have been improperly enforced or used as weapons against certain groups, leaving them marginalized and fighting for basic freedoms, often with limited resources.

In an effort to bring these social injustices to light, the UCS Science Network has created the “Science for Justice” blog series. The series is intended to engage scientists who are working with and within the most impacted communities and use their scientific expertise to inform issues of social justice, and to amplify the communities and grassroots organizations that scientists work with, while also offering guidance on best practices for respectful, mutually beneficial partnerships. It is important for scientists to recognize the fraught history of social justice in America and to be aware of the space they are entering.

The series will also serve as a platform to offer tips and resources for scientists looking to use their skills to help communities advance their work for just and equitable solutions, from scientists and community members already in this space.

It is critical for our collective health and safety for scientists to realize the power they hold in being able to inform policies which will protect this and future generations’ access to the land, water and air. The “Science for Justice” series intends to teach scientists how to utilize this power—for the people.


Our Science for Public Good Project: Hosting a Holiday Air and Water Quality Party


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Congress must address gun violence safety https://blog.ucsusa.org/yogin-kothari/congress-must-address-gun-violence-safety https://blog.ucsusa.org/yogin-kothari/congress-must-address-gun-violence-safety#respond Thu, 15 Feb 2018 16:50:44 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56806

Yesterday, was a tragic day. A 19-year-old teen opened fire on his former classmates, killing 17, wounding many more, and affecting the lives of thousands in a community just north of Miami, Florida.

It was yet another tragic day in a long line of tragic days. Since 2013, there have been 290 school shootings, an average of nearly one per week. In 2018, there have been 18 school shootings in 45 days. On average, that is about one shooting every three days.

Overall, in 2018, there have been 30 mass shootings in the United States.

This is unacceptable. This has always been unacceptable.

The United States can do better. And Congress can do better. We continue to hear the popular refrain of thoughts on prayers from our elected officials, but it isn’t enough. It wasn’t enough for the victims in Parkland, Las Vegas, San Bernadino, Orlando, Newtown, and many more, and it won’t be enough for the victims of the next mass shooting.

That’s why Congress must show leadership. Over the next few weeks, as Congress works to finalize a spending bill for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year, and as it begins work on a spending bill for the 2019 fiscal year, there is one concrete thing that our elected officials can do to move the ball in the right direction.

Congress must lift the ban restricting gun violence research and fund critical work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The policy rider, which has been embedded into spending bills since 1996, while not expressly prohibiting research on gun violence and gun violence safety, is written in such a way that it has created a chilling effect at the CDC and suppressed inquiry into this public health crisis.

Over the years, the Union of Concerned Scientists has advocated for removing this policy rider from spending legislation and we will continue to do so when we meet with legislators and their staff.

In a radio interview, Speaker Paul Ryan said that “as public policymakers, we don’t just knee-jerk before we even have all the facts and the data.” Speaker Ryan, I couldn’t agree more. Now let’s put some money where your mouth is and lift the ban that restricts gun violence research at the CDC.

Congress should not be discouraging scientific research on gun violence. It must be looking for solutions. Gathering information and seeking data to help inform the conversation on what we as a nation must do to prevent these senseless tragedies would be a good start.

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Federal Scientists! Make a Note for the Record. We All Need to Know of Your Work. https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/federal-scientists-make-a-note-for-the-record-we-all-need-to-know-of-your-work https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/federal-scientists-make-a-note-for-the-record-we-all-need-to-know-of-your-work#comments Tue, 13 Feb 2018 22:53:36 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56769

To say that federal employees are working in a challenging environment is probably a gross understatement. I’ve heard reports of employees not being allowed to take notes in meetings or told not to use specific words in communications. The Union of Concerned Scientists has reported on scientific advice being sidelined by political staff across a broad range of decisions. As my colleague Joel Clement, formerly of the Department of Interior, said, most career professionals in the agencies just want to do their jobs.

So how can scientists and other professionals in the agencies maintain the integrity of your work place? How can you ensure that the information and technical input you provide isn’t simply suppressed? One option is to make notes for the record as you do your work. You can document in real time by writing a contemporaneous account of the projects you are involved in, dated and signed. That preserves a record of what’s happening inside federal agencies. You can briefly document meetings and calls you participate in, and include any documents that are a key part of the decision-making process. You might want to keep separate copies at home or securely in your office. In keeping with best practices for data management, back up your notes periodically or keep them in multiple formats.

I am not suggesting some nefarious effort to undermine agencies nor to catch anyone out, or challenge the administration, but simply to document the professional work that you do. Be aware that what you write will likely be seen by others. It may become part of an administrative record behind a decision. So, take care with what you write and maintain professional standards at all times.

The purpose of our government is to serve the public interest. The professional staff at federal agencies know that well. Keeping a record of your work is also the act of a professional. I certainly understand the stress that many agencies are feeling, as a former fed myself. So, take care and continue to do the work you do, and that the country so sorely needs. And as you do, help fight the censorship of science by making sure that that work will ultimately be accessible to all Americans. And for anyone reading this blog, remember to #ThankAGovScientist today.

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How Bad Are Proposed Budget Cuts at the EPA? Let Me Count the Ways https://blog.ucsusa.org/kathleen-rest/how-bad-are-proposed-budget-cuts-at-the-epa-let-me-count-the-ways https://blog.ucsusa.org/kathleen-rest/how-bad-are-proposed-budget-cuts-at-the-epa-let-me-count-the-ways#respond Tue, 13 Feb 2018 21:15:08 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56773
Proposed budget cuts threaten the health and safety of all Americans, especially our children. Photo: USEPA/Flickr

While President Trump just released a proposal that would result in deep cuts for critical science-based agencies in fiscal year 2019, Congress still must pass a spending bill that will determine funding levels for critical agencies that we rely on to advance science, keep our air and water clean, and protect children’s health for the rest of this fiscal year by March 23.

Unfortunately, the proposals currently on the table for funding our government would slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and include harmful “poison-pill” anti-science policy riders, thereby threatening the public health and safety of everyone across the US. 

The proposals to cut EPA funding and undermine the agency’s ability to implement evidence-based policies are deeply troubling given the critical role—and successful track record—of the agency.  Remember the saying: you can’t argue with success? Well, that’s certainly not a saying used by the current administration, nor the appropriations committees in Congress, on this matter. There, the majority party seems to overlook the singular success of the people’s Environmental Protection Agency.  (I refer to “the people’s” EPA because the agency is there first and foremost for us—to protect and preserve our health, our communities, our environment.)

Perhaps these budgeteers think the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink simply improved on their own over time. Or that the polluters decided to ratchet down toxics in our environment out of the goodness of their hearts. Perhaps they forgot that rivers once caught fire and that really dirty air plagued our cities and communities, exacting an enormous toll on the public’s health.

Or maybe they just think our environment is clean enough. Perhaps in their zeal to help EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt “get back to basics,” they ignore the science and data that tell us otherwise. Many communities, along with health professionals, know full well that the environment is NOT clean enough. The proposed cuts by Congress (and the president) to the EPA budget—significant for an agency already underfunded and stretched thin—fail to recognize that air pollution remains a significant risk factor for cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness and premature death in this country. They sideline such facts as:

  • More than half of all Americans—166 million people—live in counties where they are exposed to unhealthful levels of these pollutants—like ozone and particulates.
  • Nearly 3.6 million children and close to 11.4 million adults with asthma live in counties of the United States that received an F for at least one pollutant.
  • More than 24.8 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant. Nearly 3.8 million people in poverty live in counties failing all three tests. Evidence shows that people who have low incomes may face higher risk from air pollution.

Ignorance may be bliss for some, but it sure doesn’t protect and improve the public’s health.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

There is no overarching silver lining to the EPA budget proposals coming out of Congress (or the White House)—though I suppose we could acknowledge that their proposals are not as draconian as President Trump would have liked.

There is one significant sliver of good news: Senate appropriators directed the EPA to continue reimbursing the Department of Justice for expenses incurred in litigating Superfund cases and forcing polluters to pay for cleaning sites they left contaminated with hazardous waste. This was a practice Pruitt wanted to shut down. And the bill increases the Superfund program budget slightly (by $2 million).

OK. But, these bits of good news are completely overshadowed by the BIG hit that the EPA would take in the Senate bill along with the litany of poison pill riders that would fly in the face of scientific advice. Given how long ago it now feels that the House and Senate bills came out, and given the looming March 23 deadline for Congress to pass a spending bill or pass another extension, here is a reminder of the bad and the ugly.

On the chopping block

Across-the-board cuts in the EPA budget would be bad enough, but they fall most heavily (and predictably) on some programs in the most recent proposals. No surprise that compliance and enforcement programs are a target. The House proposed a 15% cut in enforcement and a 5% cut in compliance programs within the Environmental Program and Management Account. The Senate bill cuts enforcement and compliance within the Environmental Program and Management Account by 10% each. Never mind that enforcement and compliance programs are essential for ensuring that regulated industries are abiding by our country’s science-based environmental standards—whether through assistance or sanction—and paying the price when they aren’t. (Strong enforcement also helps level the playing field for those companies that comply with environmental regulations. Violators should not get a free ride.)

Cuts to EPA enforcement and compliance programs could also mean:

  • Fewer actions to protect the public, especially young children, from exposure to lead in paint. From October 2016 to September 2017, EPA filed 123 civil lead-based paint administrative actions leading to 120 settlements and three outstanding civil complaints. In fact, EPA enforcement actions have reached a 10-year low.
  • Fewer cases to force reductions in harmful air emissions from petrochemical facilities
  • Less company investment in pollution control equipment to reduce air pollution and to improve public health in local communities previously impacted by pollution
  • Fewer actions to prevent future chemical spills and clean up past ones
  • You get the picture.

EPA’s Science and Technology Account is also on the chopping block, despite the central role EPA plays in providing the research, scientific knowledge, and technologies needed to prevent and abate current pollution as well anticipate and prepare for future hazards and risks. The House bill cuts this critical function by almost 15%, while the Senate bill cuts it to a little more than 10%. This is a significant cut to this gem in our nation’s research enterprise, potentially affecting research areas critical to the health and safety of our children, our communities, and our future. These include, for example,

  • Conducting cutting-edge science to inform quality standards for the water we drink and the air we breathe
  • Evaluating the potential health impacts of chemicals and emerging materials, as well as enabling safer and more sustainable use of new chemicals
  • Developing or jumpstarting the scientific and engineering solutions we need to manage current and future environmental risks
  • Providing the science and technology needed to effectively respond to, and recover from, intentional or accidental environmental catastrophes

These cuts also put the capacity, productivity, and effectiveness of our national labs at risk, as well as the likelihood of additional job loss. (I say additional because Pruitt is already orchestrating an exodus of EPA staff and expertise through hiring freezes, buyouts, and offers of early retirement–see here and here). Among others, this cut puts the National Vehicle and Fuels Emission Laboratory at risk. That’s the one that verified and provided the data needed to prosecute Volkswagen for Dieselgate. And, speaking of diesel, the Senate bill cuts the program that provides funds to replace or retrofit older diesel vehicles by almost a third—from $65 million if FY 2017 to $40 million in FY 2018.

Work on environmental justice is another mission-critical area of the EPA. Established in 1992, EPA’s environmental justice program was established to address the disproportionate impact of environmental pollution on minority, low-income, and disenfranchised communities. The Office of Environmental Justice—though small itself—has provided leadership, support, resources, and small grants to engage and help communities create and implement local solutions to environmental justice concerns where they live. Yet instead of doubling down on this problem, the Senate bill slashes the budget of the office by 10%, which could mean:

  • Less financial support for impacted environmental justice communities
  • Fewer tools, resources, and opportunities for EJ community engagement in EPA policy processes and decisions
  • Less technical assistance for communities to enhance their ability to better understand the science, regulations, and policies of environmental issues and EPA actions

How these cuts make America great is beyond me.

Not content with mere chopping, the Senate bill eliminates the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). This is the program that assesses and evaluates the potential health risks of our exposure to chemicals in the environment. These assessments are used by federal and state regulators (and even internationally) to set exposure limits on hazardous chemicals. Easy to understand why the chemical industry and their favorites in Congress have had their sights on IRIS for quite a while (more on that here).

Now, to be fair, while totally gutting IRIS, the Senate bill transfers resources and directs the EPA to build this effort into its revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Program. The bill also calls on EPA to work closer with industry as it crafts the next generation of risk assessment methods. Should we have any confidence that this new approach will serve the public interest? Notwithstanding the fact that the IRIS program and the TSCA program have different mandates. And it’s Nancy Beck who heads the EPA’s Toxics Office. She is a former policy director at the American Chemistry Council, so just call me skeptical.  And I’m being generous here.

Poison pills—those ugly riders

We can be forgiven for thinking that spending bills are all about funding. But our elected leaders can sneak or even boast about attaching anti-science, poison pill policy riders to spending bills.   And the spending bill introduced in the Senate that should be clearly focused on funding public health and science-based policymaking is no exception.

Here are a few poison pills they are asking us to swallow:

  • Exempt any EPA effort to withdraw the Clean Water Rule from the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). This is the rule that defines which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act. Yeah, the water we might drink fish, swim, or play in.  And bypassing the APA means the agency can withdraw the rule without any public comment. (Score 1 for Pruitt, 0 for democracy.)
  • Require EPA and other agencies to continue to treat forest biomass as carbon-neutral, again sidelining science.
  • Roll back the critical science-based ozone standard which results in cleaner air and healthier people.
  • Prohibit agencies from requiring Clean Air Act permits to emit carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases from livestock production.
  • Prevent agencies from issuing rules that require limits on greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems.
  • Endorse EPA efforts to “reshape” its workforce—another word for downsizing—that is already hollowing out the agency. This loss of experience and expertise will take decades to rebuild.

What to do? Light up those phones!

Congress has until March 23 to pass a spending bill which would fund the government for the rest of the year, so now is a key moment to let your Senators know: Any cuts to the EPA and any “poison pill” anti-science poison-pill riders are unacceptable!

Call your senators. You can reach them by calling 1-833-216-1727.

Tell them you are opposed to any cuts to the EPA budget and to harmful anti-science poison pill policy riders that prevent the agency from doing its job. Speak specifically to cuts in the EPA Science and Technology Account, the Environmental Program and Management Account (which fund enforcement and compliance), the Office of Environmental Justice, and the elimination of the IRIS program.

Call them, and then call them again. Tell them the EPA is the people’s EPA and this bill does not serve the people.

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