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 futureregulations. 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 thenonpartisan 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.