In case you haven’t noticed, President Trump and the Republican Party have not been putting too much effort into legislating lately. Once they got their tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, and tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, their agenda was pretty much tapped out.

But even if Republicans in Congress aren’t doing very much, that doesn’t mean that in the rest of the government the party isn’t working like busy little bees, trying to affect sweeping change.

The EPA, which is now led by a former coal lobbyist, is proposing to change what kind of scientific information it will accept in making judgments about the effects of pollution, by requiring scientists to make public all the raw data they use in arriving at their results.

Why is that important? Because the EPA can use this as a weapon, a way to avoid using the evidence of scientific data showing the effects of pollution on human health. They can essentially throw large bodies of published, peer-reviewed science in the trash, then say, “Sorry, we have no evidence that dumping these chemicals in your water supply is actually hurting you, so the companies doing it can go right ahead.”

The measure would make it more difficult to enact new clean air and water rules because many studies detailing the links between pollution and disease rely on personal health information gathered under confidentiality agreements. And, unlike a version of the proposal that surfaced in early 2018, this one could apply retroactively to public health regulations already in place.
“This means the E.P.A. can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.
Public health experts warned that studies that have been used for decades — to show, for example, that mercury from power plants impairs brain development, or that lead in paint dust is tied to behavioral disorders in children — might be inadmissible when existing regulations come up for renewal.

This is part of an effort at EPA that began as soon as the Trump administration took office to sideline scientists and enhance the influence of industry in the regulatory process, one that has parallels in other agencies as well, adding up to what some call a “war on science” within government.

Like any Republican administration, Trump’s is driven by a belief that government should do as little as possible to protect public health, and it doesn’t want the heavy hand of the state limiting the freedom of corporations to do whatever they want, even if what they want is to, say, pour mercury into the air.

The scientists who study health risks associated with pollution are an impediment to that project, and so a regulation is crafted to allow the government to ignore it. If the government has its own scientists who persist in assembling data that is at odds with a deregulatory agenda, they have to be driven out of their jobs.

But this story provides an important lesson in what “deregulation” really means. Republicans often characterize that agenda as merely one of eliminating “red tape,” attacking useless rules and paperwork that do no one any good, as though they despise cumbersome bureaucracy almost irrespective of what it’s supposed to accomplish.

In truth, however, “deregulation” often involves not eliminating regulations but merely altering them so that they benefit a different group of interests. This is a new regulation the EPA is proposing, called Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science. It’s a regulation that imposes additional reporting requirements on scientists if their work is to be considered in the policymaking process — in other words, more red tape.

The purpose of that red tape is to put in front of them a hurdle that EPA knows it will be difficult to clear, which will in turn give polluters greater freedom to befoul the air and water regardless of what scientific research has found about the consequences.

You can see Republicans operating on the same principle in other areas, where the supposed enemies of bureaucracy eagerly weaponize it against people they don’t like by making it as complex and difficult to navigate as possible, doing things like adding elaborate work requirements to Medicaid or imposing complicated registration procedures to voting.

So the next time you hear a Republican brag about how the Trump administration is “deregulating,” getting rid of “onerous rules” or “streamlining government,” remember that it is doing nothing of the sort. It is just changing who government is working for.

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