The White House Clearly Does Not Like the EPA’s “Secret Science” Plan

April 13, 2018 | 2:50 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The EPA’s plan to limit the types of science that the  EPA can use to make decisions may run into an unusual roadblock: the White House itself. In a Senate hearing yesterday, New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan questioned White House official Neomi Rao about the EPA plan (watch here, beginning at 59:02), and the answers suggest that the EPA and the White House are not on the same page.

Ms. Rao heads the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The office is responsible for overseeing the administration’s regulatory agenda. Agencies submit rules for OIRA review before they can be finalized.

The White House tends to enthusiastically support federal agency initiatives. But in a hearing Thursday, the administration’s representative, Neomi Rao was pretty lukewarm about the EPA’s proposal to limit the use of science at the agency. Archival photo via C-SPAN.

Some speculate that OIRA is not keen on the EPA’s proposal because it could make it more difficult for the EPA to weaken clean air and clean water protections. A court can strike down agency actions that are not grounded in evidence—both decisions that improve public protections and decisions that erode them. So in a perverse way, their desire to go back to 1950s regulatory standards could be hampered by the EPA’s proposed science restrictions.

Senator Hassan began buy questioning Administrator Rao about a proposal to give restaurants owners more control over service workers’ tip money. The Department of Labor purposely hid analysis showing the proposal would take billions of dollars out of the pockets of food servers, baristas, and many other hardworking people. OIRA allowed the department to move forward with the proposal, even though it lacked sufficient data to do so (Senators Heitkamp and Senator Harris asked great follow-up questions later in the hearing).

Then Senator Hassan moved on to the EPA (my emphasis added):

Senator Hassan: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is reportedly considering a proposal that would prevent the EPA from using a scientific study unless it is perfectly replicable and all the underlying raw data is released to the public. That is problematic for a whole host of reasons. For example, it could require the release of confidential medical information, which in turn may reduce participation in studies, but it would also prevent the EPA from considering some of the best evidence we have available to us when making regulatory and deregulatory decisions. Have you and your office provided any input to Administrator Pruitt on this proposal?

Administrator Rao: The questions about information quality are very important to us, and that is something that my staff has been working with the EPA on to develop best practices in that area.

Senator Hassan: Do you think such a proposal as the one I just described, the one that is from the EPA that would limit the information agencies can use by preventing them from considering best available evidence makes sense?

Administrator Rao: Well I think we want to make sure that we do have the best available evidence. I think it’s also important for the public to have notice and information about the types of studies which are being used by agencies for decision making, so I think that there is a balance to be struck there, and I think that’s something that the EPA is working towards.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, and some evidence that the friction between the White House and EPA extends beyond numerous ethical scandals to the agency’s style of policymaking as well.

“Scientific evaluation and data and analysis is an ongoing process,” continued Senator Hassan. “As you know, we’ve talked about one of my priorities is the response to the opioid crisis in my state and across this country. If we wait for so-called perfect science, we’re not going to have evidence-based practices out there that are saving lives. And so I think it is critically important that we continue to honor scientific process and make sure that we are using best available data when we make policy.”

At one point, Senator Hassan posed this direct question: “Would you generally support agencies changing their procedures in ways that prevent them from using the best available evidence when making these decisions?”

“No, I would not,” replied Administrator Rao.

On that, they could agree.