The Regulatory Accountability Act Subverts Science and Must Be Stopped

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | April 26, 2017, 11:04 am EDT
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Today, just four days after hundreds of thousands of people marched for science, the Senate introduced a bill that would substitute politics for scientific judgment in every decision the government makes about public health and the environment. If enacted, the legislation would cripple the government’s ability to effectively carry out laws that protect us, putting everyone at more risk, especially communities of color and low-income communities that are more exposed to threats.

The Regulatory Accountability Act would prevent scientists at EPA, OSHA, and many other agencies from protecting public health and the environment. It must be stopped.

The ill-named Regulatory Accountability Act (House version here with coverage) does nothing more than stack the deck in favor of private companies at the public’s expense. It would paralyze agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, drowning them in red tape and compromising their public service missions. It is way more dangerous than other legislation that grabs headlines (such as the bill to eliminate the EPA) because, in this political environment, it actually has a chance.

Senators who support this legislation will be turning their backs on the role of science in making all kinds of decisions. Safety standards for the food we eat. Rules that protect construction workers on job sites. Limits on work hours of pilots and air traffic controllers. Protections for children from toys laden with harmful chemicals.

“This bill is a weapon aimed right at public health and safety protections,” said UCS’s Andrew Rosenberg in a statement. “This bill doesn’t support accountability—it removes accountability from the industries subject to regulation.”

The Regulatory Accountability Act is a bad idea. It is also not a new idea. The legislation was introduced in the last Congress, and the Congress before that. In 2015, my former colleague Celia Wexler called the Regulatory Accountability Act a “zombie bill,” legislation that has failed repeatedly in the past but keeps getting resurrected. She continued:

This bill is deliberately complicated. You have to be a regulatory lawyer to perceive all the traps, and even then you might miss some. Essentially what the RAA would do is hamstring federal agencies with additional procedural burdens when they try to carry out their mandates using the best available science.

The latest iteration of this legislation is no different. But now, it is more likely to pass and be signed into law by an administration that is committed to the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and the rolling back of public health, consumer, and environmental protections.

The Regulatory Accountability Act eviscerates the role of science in policymaking. Science, not politics, should guide decisions about public health and the environment.

We do not live in a world where you can give people forty acres of farmland, wish them luck, and send them on their way. Our world is incredibly and increasingly complex. We must rely on experts to set standards that give us equal ability to pursue our dreams.

Freedom includes protection from products and environmental contaminants that can cause us harm. Freedom includes requiring companies to pay for the pollution they create without passing the burden on to the taxpayer. We empower federal agencies to make decisions based on independent analysis and not political dealmaking precisely because it gives us these freedoms.

The Regulatory Accountability Act was rushed through the House of Representatives before the dozens of newly-elected representatives had hired staff to even read it. The Senate version offers little improvement. The current political reality requires us to fight like hell to defeat legislation that would normally be laughed out of Congress.

But fight like hell we must. A committee hearing is expected soon. So today, and every day, call both of your senators and tell them that the Regulatory Accountability Act is bad for all of us.

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  • drd

    OK so I’ve read the entire text of this bill given your lousy reporting. It basically requires that rules that will cost a billion dollars go through a few extra hoops, like a public hearing, and that it must use the best available evidence and use the lowest cost solution. Heck I need a public hearing to upgrade my house – that type of scrutiny for a billion dollar regulation sounds very very reasonable. I don’t know why you would object to this.

    • solodoctor

      The whole thrust of this legislation is to sound ‘reasonable,’ even in the title used to describe it, while announcing its intent to cut red tape, etc. Meanwhile it USES red tape, in the form of ‘a few extra hoops,’ to make it more difficult to pass laws/regulations aimed at protecting the public, etc.

      • drd

        Yes, but the bar is legislation that will cost a billion dollars and there is a lower bar for legislation that cost 100 Million. Remember that is a **billion** dollars. A billion is more than 500 people will earn in their entire lifetime. Personally I am surprised that agencies can, with minimal democratic involvement pass rules that large. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a technocrat passing a rule that could say kill 500 people so I don’t think I should feel comfortable with them passing billion dollar rules. I am surprised that congress allows agencies to pass rules with that much impact. Decisions that large should be in the democratic domain not in the domain of bureaucrats. In my view congress has found it convenient to pass this type of rule making to technocrats, but I don’t think that is at all democratic, or at all right. It is the job of congress to get involved in the big decisions, take the advice of experts of course, but then make the big decisions on behalf of the people. To me the only thing that is distressing about this legislation is that is clearly what is not happening. Now I am sure that “experts” want to just get on and pass whatever rules they feel like, that’s going to be “convenient” just like it would be convenient if law enforcement could place a camera inside every home or arrest anyone they felt like. It would be convenient if I could just put my article in the journal Nature without that meddlesome peer review – which is just red tape really. It would be convenient if I could just drive a car without getting a license or own a gun without restrictions. However we don’t live in a society where we allow such things to happen. Personally the only reason that I disagree with this legislation is that its obvious that congress has been too lazy to do their job of developing important regulation. Perhaps they are too busy engaged in political posturing – that’s probably what should stop.

      • Reg Compton

        You seem surprised at rather a lot of commonplace facts here. And you’re an expert? In what? Certainly not politics.

      • drd

        It would of course be pointless to respond to the ad hominem attack and it rather indicates that you do not have better arguments, such as ones based on facts and reason. Pity, as you may have noticed my major point was that the discussion was unfortunately rather fact free. If you actually are in possession of real and pertinent facts please bring them.

        Of course it has become commonplace for the legislative branch to pass their responsibility for rule making to technocrats. But it was not always this way, nor is it this way, at least to the same extent in all countries in the world. The legislation indicates that Congress thinks that having public input on the larger decisions is a good idea. Having looked at the facts and ignored the fact free rhetoric I agree with that intent but rather think that they created the problem in the first place by deferring to, rather than consulting, experts. Do you have some facts that might indicate that’s not a reasonable viewpoint?

  • drd

    This article doesn’t have a single specific objection to this bill, just broad brush generalizations. What exactly is wrong with it? Saying “it will paralyze” our agencies “drowning them in red tape” without any supporting facts is deeply unconvincing. You’ve insinuated plenty, but until you say something like “the bill says xx the impact is going to be yy” it comes across as total BS. I wanted to learn what might be wrong with this bill and I have just learned that some people who lack credibility don’t like it.