The House of Representatives voted 237–190 on Wednesday afternoon to pass a bill that would limit the type of scientific research the Environmental Protection Agency can use when crafting regulations to protect the environment and public health.
Dubbed the “Secret Science Reform Act of 2014,” the bill’s intention is to increase transparency at the EPA by making it so the agency can’t use any science that is “hidden and flawed,” according to bill sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). Smith and his Republican colleagues say the bill is needed so that the public can independently check the EPA’s basis for issuing regulations limiting air and water pollutants from various sources.
While the bill may sound noble on its face, scientists overwhelmingly take issue with its tenets. For one, they say, the bill does not understand why some scientific data is confidential — namely because much of it uses private medical data of voluntary test subjects to test pollutants, while some contains trade secrets and industry data.
“Some of the best real-world public health research, which relies on patient data like hospital admissions, would be excluded from consideration because personal data could not, and should not, be made public,” wrote Union of Concerned Scientists director Andrew Rosenberg in Roll Call. “Demanding public release of full raw data the agency cannot legally disclose is simply a way to accuse the agency of hiding something when it has nothing to hide.”
This is the second time this week that the House has passed a bill seeking to hamper the activities of the EPA, despite there being no chance that either would become law. On Tuesday, the House quietly passed the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, which would make it easier for scientists with financial ties to corporations to advise the EPA, and prohibits independent scientists from talking about their own research on the board.
Republicans maintained on the House floor on Wednesday that their “Secret Science” bill wouldn’t require that personal data or trade secrets be made public. Indeed, the bill states that “Nothing … shall be construed as requiring the public dissemination of information the disclosure of which is prohibited by law.” Republicans maintain that data can still be used without disclosing personal information or trade secrets.
The White House disagrees, saying in a memo released Monday that doing so would cost the agency thousands of dollars for each scientific study it uses, thereby making it harder and more time-consuming to meet the requirements for each study it wants to use. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that the EPA relies on approximately 50,000 scientific studies per year, and that meeting the goals of the House “Secret Science” bill would cost between $10,000 and $30,000 per study.
The result, the CBO noted, would be that the number of studies relied upon by the EPA would be cut in half. That would mean EPA regulations based on less sound science, and less EPA regulations overall.
“In short, the bill would undermine EPA’s ability to protect the health of Americans, would impose expensive new mandates on EPA, and could impose substantial litigation costs on the Federal government,” the White House memo reads. “It also could impede EPA’s reliance on the best available science.”
Opponents of the legislation on Wednesday took to the floor to voice their outrage, saying the bill represented a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” — a disingenuous play for “transparency” within the EPA, when all Republicans really want is less EPA regulation.
“The bill before us today is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s a dangerous attack on the power of knowledge,” said Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA). “Rather than argue with the indisputable facts on air pollution — a losing bet — this bill attempts to discredit the science as secret, when in fact there’s nothing secret about it. The only secret here is the true intent of this bill.”
Republicans insisted this wasn’t true, saying their only intent was increased transparency in EPA rulemaking. Many made comparisons to MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who controversially stated that President Obama’s health care law only succeeded because of a lack of political transparency in the administration, and “the stupidity of the American voter.”
“Why the defensiveness about transparency? Why the defensiveness about the truth? Why the defensiveness about more participation as it relates to science?” asked Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL). “What they have to defend is the orthodoxy that allowed the other side to create Obamacare and the architect of Obamacare, Jonathan Gruber, said this is a tortured way to make sure [the Congressional Budget Office] scores it this way and so forth and so on.”
Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX), a co-sponsor of the bill, also brought Gruber into the conversation.
“It makes you kind of wonder if the opponents of this legislation, like Mr. Gruber, believe that the American people are ‘too stupid to understand’ the costly impact of the EPA’s overreaching regulations,” he said. “Trust me when I say Americans are not stupid, and they deserve and demand the truth from the start.”