The Voters have Spoken: Time for Checks and Balances to Make a Comeback

November 13, 2018 | 3:31 pm
Photo: PeopleImages/iStockphoto
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

The election is all but over, and the result is a divided Congress.

Take a deep breath, scientists, and remember that divided government in these United States is what our Constitution was designed for.  A guiding principle was one of checks and balances – a check on dominance of one point of view and balance in the resulting policies for the people.  Something that, in my view, has been sorely missing for the last two years because adherence to party has superseded service to constituents and country.

So now what?  In Washington-speak, there will be an increased appetite for serious “oversight” of the Executive branch by the House of Representatives.  That means that Congress is likely to focus on how the Trump Administration is implementing the laws and mandates put in place to serve the public’s interest.  This is literally one of the “checks and balances” the framers of the Constitution created.

How does that happen?  Congress can hold hearings to question agency officials as well as solicit views from the affected public, experts, and other stakeholders about impacts of agency actions.  Also, as appropriators of federal dollars, Congress determines funding levels for each agency and can set the terms of use for those funds.  And Congress can demand information in writing, investigate problems through the Government Accountability Office (GAO) or Inspectors General’s (IG) offices in each federal agency, and hold agency officials accountable both in the court of public opinion, along with referring cases to the courts as needed.   These are powerful tools that have been semi-dormant for a couple of years.  Time for a change.

I like to think of Congressional efforts toward checks and balances coming from three sources:

  1. Pursuing specific constituent concerns
  2. Ensuring the intent of Congress is carried out
  3. Highlighting controversial issues

Constituent services

Every member of Congress is elected to serve both their constituents and the Nation as a whole.  And every member is attentive to issues raised by their constituents, whose welfare (and votes) matter to them.  When a member of Congress hears similar concerns from multiple constituents, he/she can and should see what can be done to address the issue writ large from DC.  Your calls, your letters, your visits to local state or district offices matter.  Every scientist is also a constituent; communicating with your elected representatives can often be more important and effective than the voice of a famous expert speaking broadly from elsewhere about a policy.  So, scientist/constituents can be the impetus for congressional oversight.

Let’s consider a few ways this could happen right away.  Without notifying the public, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this past year made a legal interpretation that the rules for industrial facilities that emit hazardous air pollutants will change — with the potential to dramatically increase emissions of these toxic and sometimes cancer-causing substances.  Suppose one of those facilities is in your neighborhood (and we have mapped them all by congressional district)?  You and your neighbors could ask your member of Congress to demand more information from the EPA or even to call for reconsideration of that policy change.  Tell your elected representative you expect them to hold the EPA accountable for public health impacts in your community.

Or perhaps you live near a military base, and your water supply has been contaminated by toxic per- or polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), endangering the health of your family and your neighbors.  We mapped many of these sites too.  The EPA has taken little to no action to clean up these hazardous pollutants despite overwhelming scientific evidence, and the Department of Defense (DoD) is moving slowly.  Your elected officials need to know that this isn’t acceptable.  It’s up to you to tell your member of Congress that you want them to hold the EPA and DoD to account for cleaning up the pollution.  That’s their job – to serve the public interest, not the interest of companies like Dow, Dupont, or 3M that made these compounds and are pushing back on improving the safety standards.  Your members of Congress can insist on better information, a timeline for cleanup, funds to make the water safe, and clear commitments to action by the agencies and the Administration, if they think it matters to you.

Intent of Congress

Another important part of oversight is to monitor and constantly question whether agency actions are meeting congressional intent.  In other words, ensuring that the agencies are doing their jobs on behalf of the public. Every law passed and perhaps periodically reauthorized and updated by Congress has specific goals in mind.  The Clean Water Act aims to make the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable.  The Clean Air Act seeks to ensure that the existing and future sources of air pollution are curtailed to protect public health and welfare.  The Endangered Species Act is designed to prevent the extinction of species.

Executive branch agencies implement those laws through policies and regulations specifically designed to meet the intent of Congress as written in the statute and interpreted by the courts.

Again, consider some examples.  Congress intended the Clean Air Act to clean up the air and to use the best available science to determine threats to public health and safety and then enact safeguards to protect the public against them.  Recently, the EPA has taken actions that fly in the face of this statutory mandate.  They intend to restrict the science that EPA can consider in implementing public health and safety regulations; they have dismissed the expert panels to advise on the scientific evidence for major air pollutants; and they have reshaped the agency’s science advisory boards to give industry and states a greater role than independent academic scientists.  Is this what Congress intended when it told the agency to use the best available science?  We should ask our elected officials to question these actions and demand justification from the agency. Scientist/constituents can call on Congress to withhold such that they can not be used to implement agency policies that sideline science.  And, of course, we can advocate for stronger laws that the agency can’t easily wriggle out of that ensure the use of science.

Controversial issues

There has seldom been lack of controversy in how our governments decides to deal with particular issues, but lately concerns about climate change, for example, have reached fever pitch.  These will continue, as different stakeholders have different priorities, preferences, and even values.  But our policies will not get better under any circumstances by ignoring the scientific evidence.  At the Department of Interior there have been across the board actions to remove consideration of climate change from agency planning and actions.  That includes virtually hiding reports that describe global warming impacts.

In addition, there are controversies related to conflicts of interest of political appointees and the culture of corruption in agencies and to advisory committees, as well as clear indications of political interference in agency science.

This is not just politics as usual; there are serious challenges we face as a nation.  Questions Congress could and should address in hearings, investigations and demands for information include:  Is our government and our governmental agencies putting the public’s interest first and foremost when it acts?    How should we be using public resources?  When are we going to get serious about addressing climate change — one of the greatest challenges we face globally and as a nation?

Our role as constituent scientists

There are many issues of concern that are a combination of sidelining of scientific evidence and impacts on people in our communities directly.  So, lets speak about the science, but also local impacts when contacting our representatives and asking them to pursue a strong oversight agenda.  Let’s bring the facts forward, demand information and look for solutions.  These are not esoteric or theoretical problems.  We need to speak as both scientists and constituents.

The checks and balances of Congressional oversight that I am talking about are often motivated by constituent concern, when it is voiced directly, clearly and productively.  As scientists, we are constituents but with a particular knowledge set and training on how we approach problems that is particularly valuable in shaping the oversight discussion.  As community members, we have a strong role to play in ensuring these health and safety issues get the attention they deserve, and responsible action from our federal government.

Voting in the midterms was incredibly important.  Now we need to follow up on the opportunity created by a new Congress by speaking truth to power, calling on our representatives to do the crucial job we gave them of checking and balancing the Trump Administration.  Let us know if you want to join us, and we’ll be in touch!