Bad Riders Try to Hitchhike on the Highway Bill

November 18, 2015
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

If you thought legislation that ensures that the government continues to repair our roads, bridges and transportation infrastructure is one of those bipartisan “feel good” opportunities for Congress, you haven’t been in Washington, D.C. lately.

At UCS, we’re very concerned that bad elements in the House-passed transportation bill might make their way into the final bill, now being negotiated between the House and Senate.

H.R. 22, the transportation bill, is primarily about maintaining and repairing roads and bridges and public transit. But it’s become huge, with lots of moving parts. Many of the provisions in the House-passed bill will not benefit the public and our environment.

I’ll just focus on a couple of provisions that are concerning to us:

Another attempt to threaten regulatory science

Despite the protests of more than 150 labor, environmental, public health, public interest, and small business groups in the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, as well as our own Center for Science and Democracy, earlier this month the House approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. David Young (R-IA)

Like the infamous “secret science” bill, the Young amendment pretends to be about transparency, when its real impact would be to stymie science-informed regulation.

Any federal agency covered by the transportation bill would be required to make the science informing all its regulations, no matter how small or insignificant, including cost-benefit analyses and other data, accessible to the public. The Young amendment is written so vaguely that the experts can’t agree on what it actually means.

But there’s a real danger that federal agencies would interpret it to mean that they would be limited in how they regulate. Much of the best science informing what agencies do either resides in long-term health data, which includes private health information that must be kept confidential, or confidential business information.

Corporations might use this provision to question how much of the science that informed a regulation really was accessible to the public. If corporations and other special interests sued agencies, how would judges respond? Even if agencies won these cases, the litigation itself would sap their resources.

Will federal agencies decide to avoid all hassle or possible court challenges and rely only on public information to do their work? Or will agencies continue to rely on this information and then risk being taken to court?

Either way you look at it, the Young amendment is a threat to agency science. Indeed, when the bill was considered in the House, nearly all Democrats and eleven Republican members opposed it.


Other harmful riders

In addition to this attack on scientific process in the federal government, the transportation bill also contains several provisions that our colleagues down the hall in the Clean Vehicles group care about. Specifically, there are several provisions that would undermine the historic fuel economy and carbon pollution standards that were put in place for cars and trucks.

Consumers are saving money at the pump as new, more efficient models of vehicles are being sold, but an amendment added to the House transportation bill seeks to create a loophole for natural gas vehicles by giving them more credits than they deserve. Another House-passed amendment would exempt some small volume vehicle manufacturers from existing safety and tailpipe emission standards.

And then there’s the language that we are concerned will be added in the conference process. Dave Cooke wrote a blog about these provisions that would give away fuel efficiency credits for safety features that automakers are already incorporating into vehicles. Given the recent revelations about VW—the last thing we need right now is a backdoor deal that allows the automakers to game the system and significantly undermine the climate and oil-saving benefits of the fuel economy standards.

The transportation bill is must-pass legislation that helps fund our highways and traffic safety programs—it is shameful that some members of Congress are trying to use it to undermine science and public health at the behest of special interests.

Your call or email to your member of Congress, both House and Senate, can make a difference as these conference negotiations continue over the next few days. It is a busy time for all of us, but as citizens, we should, when we can, raise our voice against these damaging provisions. They don’t deserve a free ride.