An Administration Defined by Its Conflicts (and What That Means for Science and Policy)

July 21, 2017 | 9:54 am
White House/Flickr
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The first six months of President Trump’s time in office have consisted of a whirlwind of questionable governing decisions. From the outset, the Center for Science and Democracy established a baseline of the types of protections for science within the federal government that should be maintained by the Executive Office of the President; to say that the Trump Administration is not up to the mark would be a gross understatement.

Our report released this week, Sidelining Science Since Day One: How the Trump Administration Has Harmed Public Health and Safety in its First Six Months, illustrates the ways in which President Trump and his administration have actively weakened the ability of federal scientists to conduct critical research and issue science-based safeguards; restricted public access to scientific data and information; and rolled back important environmental and public health policies designed to protect clean water, safe workplaces, and wildlife.

What democracy is and isn’t

Since the Trump Administration took office, the balance between public and private control of government has been skewed in favor of industry interests, at the expense of the protections that keep us safe and healthy. Is this means of governance characteristic of a functional democracy?

A democracy at its roots is a government by the people and for the people. The US government was designed to support the public good and the will of all, not the will of a select few.

This conflict between serving all and serving the powerful few is one that all US presidents have faced during their tenure. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to Congress in April 1938 about the importance of curbing monopolies, saying:

“The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.”

He continued:

“We believe in a way of living in which political democracy and free private enterprise for profit should serve and protect each other—to ensure a maximum of human liberty not for a few but for all.”

Photo: UCS/John Finch

Strong science-based public protections and a thriving business community are not mutually exclusive. Yet, under the Trump Administration, important safeguards are being recklessly cut in the name of efficiency. In employing the strategic counsel from former industry lobbyists and choosing to roll back, delay, or otherwise weaken rules that curb the ability of these companies to pollute and harm us, the Trump Administration is acting to undermine the role of evidence, reason, and the will of the public within this democracy we have fought so hard to institute and maintain.

What ever happened to draining the swamp?

The Director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), Walter Shaub, resigned earlier this month. In his resignation letter, he wrote, “The great privilege and honor of my career has been to lead OGE’s staff and the community of ethics officials in the federal executive branch. They are committed to protecting that public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain.”

As its name suggests, The Office of Government Ethics is responsible for preventing conflicts of interest within the federal government. Shaub told the New York Times that there wasn’t much more he could accomplish in the office “given the current situation,” likely responding to the way in which President Trump has taken office with an unprecedented list of personal financial conflicts and a cabinet with extensive industry ties, despite campaigning on a promise to drain the proverbial DC swamp of corporate lobbyists.

In President Trump’s first six months, several individuals with strong industry ties were nominated and confirmed for key agency leadership positions; the President has issued legally questionable executive orders, one of which requires that agencies repeal two regulations for everyone that it issues (with the intent of freezing regulation and allowing industry to get away with business as usual); created deregulation teams at each federal agency, many of whom have deep industry ties; signed into law several bills aimed at nullifying Obama-era regulations that would prevent industry misconduct; and delayed a handful of science-based rules.

In sum, the Trump administration is disproportionately considering the policy agenda of the private sector, while neglecting the real-life implications of allowing corporations to operate without proper checks.

The trump administration’s decisions are impacting peoples’ lives

Despite a wealth of scientific evidence linking chlorpyrifos with neurotoxic impacts on children and adults, the pesticide is still used on corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, certain vegetables including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, and other crops. Photo: USDA/Flickr

The clear conflicts of interest of the President and his cabinet, combined with the lack of transparency that has thus far been characteristic of the administration, have created large vulnerabilities for science-based policy in this administration. While industry awaits its chance to profit from regulatory rollbacks both here and abroad, a regulatory freeze, and industry-friendly cabinet appointments, the rest of us are missing out on unrealized health and safety benefits.

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stalls in making a decision to ban the use of the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, farmworkers in California were getting sick from acute exposure to the chemical used according to its label instructions.

As the EPA delays implementation of the Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule, communities like those surrounding Houston, Texas will have to wait even longer for much-needed protections from chemical facilities.

Yudith Nieto from Manchester, Texas was among the members of the public who made a public comment at EPA’s hearing in June regarding the proposed delay of the rule. She told agency officials:

“We have over a thousand refineries in the Houston area, as you may know, and I think you’ve probably heard throughout the day, I am sure of people that reported the work that they have been doing, the research work, the legal work that they are doing to support communities like  the community of Manchester, all around the country. And we depend on these kinds of rules and regulations to try to protect our communities, our children, people who live right next to refineries, pipelines, tank farms, and other exposures. With everything that’s happening right now in the country, we fear more for our lives, we fear or our livelihoods, we fear for our health, because we see that a lot of these Rules are being attacked.”

As the Department of Labor stalls implementing stricter exposure standards for silica and beryllium rules, the labor force in metal foundries and construction sites will continue to be exposed to levels of those chemicals that could result in eventual silicosis or chronic beryllium diseases.

Eddie Mallon worked in New York City tunnel construction for over forty years before being diagnosed with silicosis. When asked how the disease has changed his life at a 2014 hearing for the rule, he told OSHA staff:

“Well, yeah, I loved playing sports, but I can’t do that with the silicosis. It’s a problem. I like working around the house. It affects me. Playing with my grandchildren affects me. It has all different ways to affect you. I mean, you know, I’m 70. I may look a little younger than what I look, but my lungs, I’m sure, are a lot older than that. It’s a hidden disease, silicosis.”

He worries about the next generation without a stronger exposure standard:

“I strongly believe OSHA needs to implement strong silica standards. We need them and especially in my industry. I do believe that 50 years down the line, you will never see a 70-year-old man sitting up here talking about silica if things don’t change. These young kids today, what they’re going to face down the hole is nothing [like] what I did. For the first 30 years of working the tunnels, it was bad with the silica, but nowhere near what it’s like today.”

And as the Food and Drug Administration gives food manufacturers more time before enforcing revised nutrition facts labels with a line for added sugars, parents will remain in the dark on how much sugar is added to their children’s food. Alec Bourgeois, a DC dad, shares what the delays mean for his family:

“You can think that you are making reasonable, healthy decisions and realize later that you are absolutely eating junk and it’s incredibly frustrating…So much of the things that didn’t used to have sugar in them now have sugar in them. Like tomato sauce for example. There’s going to be some sugar in the tomato but they are also adding five or six tablespoons of sugar on top of that.”

While we’ve had some victories in stopping the Administration from making ill-advised policy decisions, we need to continue to monitor the horizon and fight back when science is attacked, misused, or ignored by our government.

Sign up here to join the vanguard of watchdogs poised to help us with this mighty task, and to read more about how the Administration has sidelined science so that powerful interests can push forward their own agendas, check out our new report here.