It’s no secret that Republicans aren’t fans of the Obama administration’s environmental and energy agenda. Republicans have continually called for reining in what they say are burdensome regulations that are hurting the economy. Now, newly in control of both chambers of Congress, Republicans have vowed go after high-profile Obama regulations such as limits on carbon-dioxide and mercury emissions from power plants and tougher ozone standards.
But now, Republicans want to go a step further by going after future regulations. They want to reform the scientific procedures and assessments that agencies — especially the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — use to determine how tough their policies should be.
Agencies draw on scientific data and the advice of outside scientists all the time to answer policy-related questions. To determine whether to protect a creature under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) might need data on the species’ population trends, habitat and vulnerability to environmental threats. To determine whether a pollutant, cosmetic or pesticide is risky enough to be regulated, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and EPA might need toxicology data from substances’ manufacturers and peer-reviewed studies. Agencies also usually seek to estimate policies’ benefits and costs in dollar terms.
There’s nothing particularly new about the bills, as they were introduced in previous Congresses. But they didn’t receive much attention, not only because they concern some highly wonky and obscure procedures, but also because they never came up in the Democratic-held Senate. Now, though, Republicans can put more pressure on President Obama by trying to send these measures through both chambers of Congress and to his desk. So you can expect to hear about these bills a lot more.
Take, for instance, Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) Regulatory Accountability Act, which the House approved earlier this month on a mostly party-line vote. In addition to toughening up requirements for agencies’ cost-benefit analyses and data disclosure, the bill would also boost public comment opportunities. Proponents say those provisions would mean more transparent and cost-effective regulations.
Then there’s the EPA Secret Science Reform Act, sponsored in the last Congress by Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.). Republicans routinely accuse the EPA of not operating transparently with its data. This bill, which the House hasn’t brought up yet this session, would bar EPA from making policies or doing analyses with data that is not “transparent” or “reproducible.” Its GOP proponents argue, quite simply, that public policy should use public data.
Republicans could also bring up EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, sponsored in the last Congress by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah). The bill would require that advisory panels be “fairly balanced,” and more transparent with public comments, which would result in sounder advice to the EPA, proponents say.
On the surface, these bills — one of which would affect all agencies and two of which target the EPA — seem well-intentioned. Who wouldn’t want more transparency? Indeed, the EPA in particular hasn’t exactly been a beacon of transparency during the Obama administration, especially in its handling of the press. And who wouldn’t want agencies to use sounder science? Business and energy lobbying groups have made those arguments in supporting these bills, suggesting that the measures would yield less costly, more scientifically sound regulations.
But agencies like the EPA already struggle to finish regulations and risk assessments on time, if at all, and industry may already be flexing a lot of lobbying muscle. In the Obama administration, “the final versions of many of the most controversial rules were made less stringent,” as the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted. And not only do many regulations take years just to propose, but years more to finalize, especially at the EPA: “Virtually all major EPA regulatory actions are subjected to court challenge, frequently delaying implementation for years,” the CRS report said. And, as many Democrats and public-interest groups worry, these bills could simply slow down agencies further and actually reduce their ability to use science.
For starters, already most rules — and virtually all major ones — involve one or more public comment periods, in which stakeholders can submit their own data or air complaints. Sometimes agencies take public comment on scientific and economic analyses themselves. But Regulatory Accountability Act opponents are worried about a provision requiring agencies to calculate the “direct” and “indirect” costs of every possible version of a policy, and another provision letting outside groups request hearings to challenge the data and science behind certain rules. Those provisions could grind agencies to a halt with more hearings and virtually endless analyses, bill opponents argue.
Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has suggested that the secret-science bill might also bog down the EPA. The EPA uses about 50,000 studies each year, according to CBO, but under the bill, the agency would need obtain each study’s raw data. Not only would that cost $10,000-$30,000 per study, CBO found, but it would also take time. Absent a budget boost, the EPA “would probably cut the number of studies it relies on by about one-half,” CBO said.
The secret-science bill’s data requirements also might spur time-consuming lawsuits, public-interest groups worry. Many studies use health or business information that are legally confidential. While the bill states that it wouldn’t require the disclosure of any legally protected data, the EPA would need to decide which data actually are protected, and its decisions could be challenged in court.
Then there’s the science advisory bill. Opponents are alarmed at a provision allowing scientists with potential conflicts of interest (say, from industry) to serve on advisory panels as long as they disclose their conflict. Another provision barring panelists from advising the agency on matters “directly” or “indirectly” involving their own work has also raised eyebrows. As Elizabeth Grossman pointed out, the bill “does not clearly define what indirect involvement means,” potentially deeming top experts on a subject ineligible to advise the EPA on it. And a provision requiring advisory panels to respond to all public comments could encourage stakeholders to bombard panels with comments just to slow them down, opponents worry.
Republicans such as Goodlatte insist that bills such as his Regulatory Accountability Act would cut regulations’ costs, “all without stopping a single needed regulation from being issued,” as he said on the House floor. But if bill opponents’ concerns hold true, the measures are a recipe not for sounder regulations, but for weaker regulations and fewer of them. As Christopher Flavelle argues in the case of the secret-science bill, maybe that’s the point: “It would, in other words, weaken the agency. Of course it would. That’s the purpose of the bill.” Not only would agencies need more time, but they might be scared off from making new regulations to begin with.
That’s not to say that every Obama policy (or any other president’s, for that matter) has drawn on the highest-quality science possible. But regardless of whether these bills genuinely seek to improve executive branch policies, they could easily have another, diametrically opposed set of consequences: to halt many future regulations before they can even get off the ground, whether the benefits exceed the costs or not.