By Celia Wexler, Union of Concerned Scientists
I will be very happy when the month of January is over. The blizzard that now is paralyzing the Washington, D.C. seems an apt metaphor for what is happening on Capitol Hill. In Washington, a blizzard of bad ideas threatens to cripple our generations-old bipartisan framework of laws enacted to keep American families and our environment safe.
These congressional efforts seem all the more troubling in light of January’s revelations that Flint, Michigan’s citizens, particularly its children, have been the victims of a massive disregard for human health, and that federal agencies and the state government failed to act fast enough and aggressively enough to fulfill their missions to serve the public.
The Flint tragedy is all the more poignant because it reflects a dramatic disconnect between the legitimate expectations of the American public and the priorities of too many of our elected officials, who are more focused on getting rid of regulations than enforcing them.
Almost from the first day of 2016, some members of Congress have continued their war on federal agencies and the way they use science to protect us from a host of dangers —from polluted air and water to tainted food and unsafe products, and hazards that would degrade our environment or destabilize or economy.
Beginning on January 7, the House of Representatives began votes on bills that would put federal agency science in jeopardy. These bills always have “clever” names. A good example is H.R. 1155, the SCRUB (Searching for & Cutting Regulations That Are Unnecessarily Burdensome) Act.
The SCRUB Act would create a commission of “experts” who would recommend regulations that should be cut or weakened. The idea is to reduce the cumulative cost of compliance to businesses by 15 percent, not to protect the public. So the commission would not be asked to strengthen existing rules, or develop new ones to respond to emerging hazards. Its sole focus would be saving corporations money.
What makes this idea even more pernicious is that it is linked to a new, unreasonable mandate on agencies. An agency could not implement a new regulation until it could find a regulation to cut, one that was on the new commission’s hit list.
Does that make sense to you? The President already has asked federal agencies to look at their older rules and see if any of them are unnecessary or duplicative. The agencies have done a good job weeding them out. Do we really want life-saving rules held hostage until agencies must scramble to find a rule that the public can live without?
Recently, rules were developed to address the growing problem of trains carrying very flammable crude oil exploding and causing millions of dollars in damage and the loss of lives. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and other members of Congress complained that the federal government wasn’t acting fact enough. And yet, if SCRUB were enacted, these new rules could have been delayed for months, even years.
During that same week, the House also passed H.R. 712, the Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act, a trifecta of bad ideas. (In this Congress, beware of any House bill that includes “sunshine” or “transparency” in its title.)
It included proposals to make it much more difficult for members of the public to sue federal agencies that are not enforcing existing regulations, and to delay crucial regulations by requiring them to be posted online for six months before they can be enacted, even though the public has already had a chance to weigh in on them. The bill also proposed that agencies develop 100-word summaries for each regulation, exposing them to the threat that if those summaries were not comprehensive or accurate enough, an agency could be challenged in court.
And just to cap things off, the following week, the House passed H.R. 1644, the STREAM (Supporting Transparent Regulatory and Environmental Actions in Mining) Act. This time, the House target was the Department of Interior, and its ability to ensure that mining waste does not pollute our streams and waterways.
It would impose “transparency” mandates that would require the science underlying regulations be disclosed 90 days before a rule or guidance is published, even when the research had not yet appeared in a scientific journal. Agencies don’t own all the scientific research that informs their decisions. But if they fail to meet the 90-day deadline, the rule will be delayed; if the delay goes on for six months, the rule is canceled. Worse, the bill would require an expensive, unnecessary study that would block science-based regulations to protect our waterways.
Our Center for Science and Democracy strongly opposed all three bills, as did the White House, which issued strong veto threats for each of them. In opposing the STREAM Act, the Administration warned that it would set back stream protection efforts by three years, jeopardizing the access of communities to clean water.
While votes on regulatory issues like these tend to be lopsided, with House Republicans largely in support, and House Democrats opposed, the STREAM Act also drew the opposition of ten House Republicans.
Just to top things off, January has been a time of waiting in the Senate. Any day now, we are expecting a regulatory working group, composed of four Republican and four Democratic Senators, to introduce a package of legislative proposals that could be very harmful to our regulatory process. That group includes Sen. Heitkamp, the same senator who pushed for faster action on oil train rules.
We don’t know quite what the package will contain, but based on media reports, we know what alarms us. It could make independent agencies more vulnerable to judicial challenge and political interference, create a commission to look at regulations that are ten years old or older and recommend which rules to cut or gut, and impose many more procedural burdens on agencies that now are scrambling to protect the public and the environment with limited resources and staff. The entire package views regulations through the lens of corporations, and their goal of reducing the cost of compliance. These proposals show little concern for the costs of not regulating that American families bear.
If the lesson of Flint tells us anything, it is that rules matter. Municipal drinking water does not stay safe if regulations are not in place, if governments and companies don’t follow them, and if federal agencies lack the authority—and in some cases, the courage—they need to compel safety measures.
If only Congress would understand what seems so obvious to the rest of us.