The Secrets of the “Secret Science” Bill

What House Republicans really mean when they call for reform of the EPA.

From left, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., and Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.

Georgia Republican Rep. Paul Broun, left, wants to reform the Environmental Protection Agency. He also wants climate change to be recognized as a “hoax.”

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Few Republicans have kind words for the Environmental Protection Agency. Many refer to it as a menacing, conspiratorial madhouse—rather than an agency that takes up 0.2 percent of the federal government’s budget to keep the air and water clean. Michele Bachmann once pledged to padlock its doors; John Boehner has called it “nuts”; and Mitch McConnell says getting “the EPA reined in” will be a top priority when he ascends to Senate majority leader come January.

Those who insist the EPA needs muzzling claim it is consistently “overreaching” and making laws at “unprecedented” rates. (The agency is “a regulatory firehose on U.S. business,” intoned the Wall Street Journal.) But such bellows are at odds with the reality. According to the Office of Management and Budget, from 2001 to 2011, EPA regulations accounted for annual benefits to the country worth between $141 billion and $691 billion, while incurring annual costs between $42.4 billion and $66.3 billion. As of 2010, fewer Clean Air Act rules had been proposed or issued under the Obama administration than during the same point in the presidencies of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.

But the agency is plagued by real problems—bureaucracies tasked with complicated rulemaking and enforcement cannot avoid them. Too many poor or outdated assessment models increase costs, a Government Accountability Office report found this summer. Decisions are often delayed, causing confusion and frustration about otherwise useful regulations. It ought to be possible to make the EPA more efficient, transparent, modern, and effective. Yet two bills that passed the House of Representatives last week show how good ideas about improving the EPA can turn radioactive in Republicans’ hands.

Last Wednesday, the chamber approved the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014, which prohibits the EPA from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based on science that is not transparent or reproducible.” It compels the agency to release all scientific and technical information used in its assessments.

On its face, this does not sound bad. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama promised to make agency science transparent. Many on the left and right have pointed out that the administration’s Open Government Initiative has fallen far short of that goal. Scientists and bureaucrats themselves want to work toward more clarity and openness.

Alas, the “Secret Science” bill was put forth by Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee with a penchant for alienating those who could lead reforms and improvements. Georgia’s Rep. Paul Broun (one of the bill’s sponsors) calls climate change a “hoax” and decries evolution as a lie “from the pit of hell.” That doesn’t inspire faith in science legislation with his backing. EPA mandarins—mere mortals just trying to do what’s asked of them—are attacked as job killers, and are bound to think any Republican bill is passed with their destruction in mind. “The EPA has approved regulations that have placed a crippling financial burden on economic growth in this country,” reads the press release from the bill’s author, Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz. And as Christopher Flavelle of Bloomberg points out, rather than making the EPA leaner, the bill would increase the agency’s costs tremendously without any real gains. What’s more, the Congressional Budget Office says implementing the law would mean far fewer scientific studies (about half of the current number) would go into making the EPA’s decisions.

Denouncing the EPA plays to conservative constituents during election season—the majority of voters in eight battleground Senate states in this year’s midterms said they opposed new EPA carbon emission limit rules, according to a poll from Magellan Strategies, a research firm. So right-wing politicians are keen to bash it as a costly and growing juggernaut they promise to tame. Two other House bills, also passed last week, would bar scientists from advising the EPA on their own research and speed up issuing air pollution permits for new factories. Supporters of the bills swear they are necessary for creating more transparency and ensuring that fewer onerous regulations will be imposed on businesses.

But the pace of EPA regulations has “slowed considerably since 2011,” according to a report this summer from the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s public policy research arm. Public comment periods on new rules have frequently been extended, with revisions that “often relied on data submitted by industry” stakeholders. Many finalized rules on big issues were more lax than originally proposed as a result, CRS found. That makes Republican bills that effectively allow even more industry input in the name of curtailing runaway EPA authority look even more disingenuous. Worse, they breed distrust—the White House has already warned that it would veto all three bills should they pass the Senate—which makes it harder to pass legislation that might actually be meaningful.

Scientific integrity is something everyone should fight for, and government agencies like the EPA are not bad places to push for more clarity and collaboration. But politics has poisoned that figurative well. Sadly, this risks poisoning literal ones Americans might drink from.