A Double Homicide on the House Floor

August 4, 2015 | 11:38 am
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

I am used to the House of Representatives passing unwise bills that would make it difficult for agencies to use science to protect the environment and public health and safety. I understand that wealthy special interests are spending millions of dollars to advance their anti-regulatory agenda in Washington. But even I was shocked that a terrible legislative proposal could grow even worse. But that’s what happened in the House on July 28.

Homicide by House vote

Homicide by House vote

Not only did the House pass the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS), Members made that ill-advised and harmful bill even worse by adding the “Secret Science” amendment. We’ve warned of the dangers of both legislative proposals.

I must be watching too many TV mysteries, and I hope you’ll excuse the gory language, but here’s what happened: In truth, REINS essentially shoots the regulatory process in the head. The “secret science” amendment stabs the science informing it.

Reining in needed protections

The REINS bill seems to reflect the confusion of many in the House between the role of Congress—to enact laws that set broad mandates—and the role of federal agencies, which develop regulations to implement those mandates.

Congress decides that access to Clean Air is a national priority and passes the Clean Air Act. It is then up to the Environmental Protection Agency, using the best available science, to determine how to protect the public from toxics in the air that would harm public health and the environment. Congress has enacted similar laws enshrining values that the entire country agrees with: clean water; a safe workplace, consumer products that don’t harm our children; safe food.

The system has not been perfect, and federal regulators often are pressured by corporate interests to weaken or delay or rules. But it does reflect a process grounded in common sense. Congress, sensitive to the priorities of constituents, enacts laws. Federal agencies use scientific and legal expertise to come up with the regulations that make the laws meaningful and workable. You can’t have clean air or clean water or safe workplaces without detailed regulations.

But the REINS Act throws the system into chaos. All of a sudden, Congress would take on the role of regulator, mandating that any major rules cannot move forward until and unless the rules get an affirmative vote from both the House and Senate. Congress would have only 70 legislative days to review each of these rules. If the House or Senate failed to act within that timeframe, the rule would not move. And it couldn’t be brought up until a new Congress was convened. Congress could never keep up with this strict timetable, let alone have the expertise to analyze these regulations. We can predict the result: crucial life-saving regulations informed by science would be in legislative limbo.

The sponsors of the bill say this system is more democratic, and will not compromise rules that the public really wants. But Rep. Evan Jenkins (WVA) was refreshingly forthright when he said that members “should vote for the REINS Act because that is exactly what we are trying to do. We must end rulemaking as we know it.”

“Secret Science” compounds the damage

To add insult to injury, the House majority voted to add Rep. David Young’s (IA) “Secret Science” amendment to the terrible REINS bill. The amendment would restrict federal agencies from using only publicly accessible science to inform their rulemaking. But much of the data that is really crucial is not publicly accessible, and for good reason. In essence, all federal agencies that used any scientific or technical data would be handicapped. We’ve written about the Secret Science Reform Act” and its dangers many times. But that bill, approved by the House earlier this year, applied only to the Environmental Protection Agency.  This amendment would apply to all federal agencies.

Speaking on the House floor last week,  Rep. Donna Edwards (MD), contended that the “Secret Science “amendment  would “block Federal agencies from doing their jobs, their jobs of protecting our air, giving us clean water, making sure that our food supply is safe, checking on medical devices so that they don’t harm us, our prescription drugs so that they don’t make us sick, our privacy safeguards for our workplace information, our workplace safety standards, protections against Wall Street and its predatory lending practices.”

Consider how our federal agencies work. If an agency wants to impose restrictions on tobacco, impose labeling requirements on pesticides, or protect citizens from the harms of pollution, it needs access to information, much of it considered confidential and not lawful to make publicly accessible.

  • Health studies would be off limits. An agency would likely be prevented from using any study that uses personal health data that should not be made publicly available as demanded. Since many agency rules are health-based standards, this rule would severely restrict the ability of the agency to base rules on science.
  • Confidential business information also could not be used. An agency would be prevented from using data provided by industry to the agency to assess risk and make informed judgments about safety.
  • Agencies would be blocked from using the most up-to-date scientific information. New scientific methods and data may be restricted by intellectual property protections or industry trade secret exemptions. This amendment would limit agencies’ ability to rely on the best available science including novel approaches that may not yet be publicly available.

The fact that the House approved such a terrible bill only reinforces the peril science faces today on Capitol Hill.  The only way we can ensure that science retains its rightful place informing our federal agencies is if citizens raise their voices in protest. We can’t afford any more double homicides.