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H. Sterling Burnett: EPA Is Finally Ending Its Use of ‘Secret Science.’ Now It’s Time for Congress to Act

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt takes his seat as he arrives to testify before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2018. Sitting next to Pruitt is Holly Greaves, EPA Chief Financial Officer. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has proposed a new rule aimed at improving the quality of the science the agency relies on when developing regulations.

In an ode to transparency and common sense, the rule change would require the data underlying scientific studies used by EPA to craft regulations to be available for public inspection, criticism, and independent verification.

At the April 24 event announcing the proposed change, Pruitt said, “The era of secret science at EPA is coming to an end. The ability to test, authenticate, and reproduce scientific findings is vital for the integrity of the rule-making process. Americans deserve to assess the legitimacy of the science underpinning EPA decisions that may impact their lives.”

Pruitt’s action is a good first step in what is surely an uphill battle to reduce the avalanche of regulations mandated by the government that reduce prosperity, stifle economic growth, and undermine innovation.

Government agencies pass a mind-boggling amount of new regulations each year, imposing billions of dollars in costs on individuals and businesses. Regulatory costs top $1.9 trillion annually, amounting to $14,842 per U.S. household. That’s nearly $15,000 unavailable to pay for health insurance, medicine or medical bills, college expenses, groceries, a new car, or vacations. The Federal Register, which includes all the general and permanent rules of the executive departments and national agencies, is a whopping 61,000 pages long. Bear in mind, states and local governments also issue untold numbers of regulations as well.

Of course, some regulations are necessary to protect human health or the environment, but many provide no or minimal measurable benefits, and some result in a greater number of premature deaths, untreated illnesses, and injuries than are prevented by the rule. Audits of various agencies by the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, various inspectors generals’ offices, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and nongovernment research institutions demonstrate regulatory agencies routinely overstate the benefits and underestimate the costs of the rules they enact.

Because the economic and social implications of regulations are profound, the science they are built upon must be impeccable. Yet, regulatory agencies have a sordid history of keeping the science they’ve used to justify regulations secret — hidden from review from both outside researchers and the congressional committees charged with exercising oversight over them. An inevitable question arises: Are these rules being promulgated for regulators’ self-interests and to the peril of the public interest?

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, has been among the fiercest critics of the use of secret, untestable science as a justification for regulations. Smith has repeatedly proposed legislation aimed at ending federal agencies’ use of secret science. Although Smith’s bills have on numerous occasions passed in the House of Representatives, Senate Democrats have repeatedly blocked their passage.

Regardless of the Democrats’ obstructionist tactics, EPA is moving forward and adopting the commonsensical reforms Smith has championed. Smith attended EPA’s press event and lauded Pruitt as “courageous” for proposing the long-overdue and much-needed rule change. “For too long, the EPA has issued rules and regulations based on data that has been withheld from the American people,” Smith said. “Today, Administrator Pruitt rightfully is changing business as usual and putting a stop to hidden agendas.”

Unfortunately, EPA is not the only regulatory agency that employs opaque science to justify regulations that increase costs and decrease innovation. EPA’s efforts are praiseworthy, but Congress ought to cement EPA’s decision into law and apply it to every federal agency.

All government agencies should be required to disclose the science, models, and other information used to make agency decisions. Absolutely no agency should be allowed to use data to justify a rule if the research is not open to verification by outside parties. Furthermore, every government research contract should contain a provision requiring recipients to make available all assumptions, models, data, and communication exchanges related to the contracted research upon receiving a Freedom of Information Act request or a request by the relevant congressional committee that has oversight responsibility.

Researchers who reject such oversight and the universities or private research institutes employing them should be denied government research grants until they agree to these reasonable terms. All taxpayer-funded research or any research used to make rules imposed on the public should be the transparent and accessible.

Until Congress ensures the information used by executive agencies to impose rules is based on sound science, the public is being robbed of its ability to assess whether rules are necessary, and whether their potential benefits outweigh their potential costs.

When negotiating nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan used the Russian proverb: “trust, but verify.” When it comes to regulations based on secret science, not on rigorous data, Reagan’s sage advice is even more applicable.

There’s an ironic bumper sticker that says, “Trust Me, We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help.” Most people react by laughing, anything from a chuckle to a guffaw. Yet, when regulations are based on secret science, that is precisely the position the public is left in — having to “trust” the rules government imposes are helpful, as opposed to being adopted to benefit some politically powerful special interest.

If Pruitt’s efforts are successful, the era of “trust me” science EPA will be over. Congress should end it at every other agency as well. Reagan’s brave stand eventually led to the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism. With Pruitt’s action as a guide, Congress can enact laws that have a comparable effect, causing the demise of the regulatory state.

It is time to put secret science where it belongs: “on the ash heap of history,” as Reagan might say.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (hburnett@heartland.org) is a senior fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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