By Yogin Kothari, Union of Concerned Scientists
You may have heard that Congress is back in session this week. The House of Representatives started off by trying to eviscerate their own independent ethics watchdog behind closed doors on a national holiday. The public noticed, raised hell, and forced the chamber to reverse course.
But the absurdity in the House continues. Over the next few days, votes are scheduled on two radical proposals designed to erode the ability of federal agencies to use science to protect public health, safety, and the environment.
We’ve successfully prevented these ridiculous ideas from becoming law in the past. However, as we enter a political era where President-elect Donald J. Trump wants to dismantle our public protections, there is a legitimate path for these reckless bills to become law. And just like we noticed the ethics overreach, we have to notice these radical bills and call them out for what they are: a wonky way to undermine, politicize, and dismantle science-based public health, safety, and environmental protections and weaken popular laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
One proposal, called the Regulations From The Executive In Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS Act), would force Congress to approve science-based safeguards within a narrow timeframe. If they failed to do so, the federal government would not be allowed to implement that public protection.
The other proposal, called the Midnight Rules Relief Act, would make it even easier for Congress to dismantle a significant number of science-based safeguards finalized last year, including a new standard that would improve fuel efficiency for heavy duty trucks, simultaneously saving truck owners money and reducing carbon pollution.
Neither of these proposals are new ideas. You’re probably most familiar with the REINS Act, which my colleagues have written about here, here, and here. Like a cockroach, the idea just doesn’t die. It keeps getting reintroduced at the urging of highly-paid special interest lobbyists who apparently are more interested in evading science-based safety standards rather than ensuring access to clean air and safe drinking water.
The bill threatens the integrity of the federal regulatory process and foolishly injects politics into a process that should be rooted in science. If passed, federal agencies could be prevented from implementing potentially lifesaving public health safeguards, preventing millions of Americans, especially the most vulnerable populations who often face the gravest threats, from receiving the protection afforded to them by existing laws.
The “midnight rules” bill, which just passed the House last November, is the Congressional Review Act (another radical threat to science) on steroids. To put it even more bluntly, it’s a FASTPASS for Congress to undermine, politicize, and dismantle science-based public health protections. If it were to become law, Congress would easily use just one vote to undo important clean air, chemical safety, and nutrition standards. Worse, federal agencies would be prevented from working on similar protections in the future. So, if Congress blocks clean air protections finalized last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) couldn’t revisit the topic indefinitely.
What the “midnight rules” does do is give Congress sweeping authority to substitute political judgement for scientific judgement. It gives Congress permission to ignore all of the years of technical work and public comment used to develop public health, safety, and environmental protections, and simply dismantle all these vital safeguards in one fell swoop.
Both the REINS Act and the “midnight rules” bill ignore the fact that Congress can already undo regulations they don’t like (they just have to rewrite popular laws like the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, or the Endangered Species Act). Furthermore, it ignores the fact that federal agencies are doing their work at the behest of Congress. The EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration, are just some of the agencies that are charged by Congress to use science to protect the public.
Public protections matter
These wonky bills aren’t improving the federal government. They are an attack on our daily lives. These bills exist to “rein in” public health, safety, and environmental protections, and nothing more. They have been written and drafted by corporate lobbyists not to improve the federal regulatory process, but to stymy it, and add yet another roadblock for implementing sensible safeguards.
If these bills were to become law, they would override science, and hurt our democracy as well. Whether it’s to guarantee that our drinking water is safe, the air we breathe is clean, or to even prevent a chemical disaster in our community, we must not allow ideological and other special interests to rig the rules in their favor and gut our ability to have an informed dialogue about the decisions we need to make to address the complex challenges we face. Otherwise, we are just sacrificing the “public” part of public policymaking.
The REINS Act and the “midnight rules” bill are just the first in an avalanche of bills that will be used to gut our science-based public protections. Over the next few months, we’ll see many more proposals that we’ve seen before, and some we that we haven’t.
And while we’ve prevented almost all of the efforts to undermine our science-based rulemaking process over the last few years, the path for some of these radical ideas to become law gets easier on January 20. We must notice, remain vigilant, and frequently tell our elected officials why science-based public protections matter.