Transparency critical to getting science, regulations right

The HONEST Act should apply to all other federal agencies

By H. Sterling Burnett

Federal and state governments pass a massive number of new rules and 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.

While some regulations protect human health or the environment, many provide no or minimal measurable benefits, and some result in a greater number of premature deaths, untreated illnesses, and injuries.  Indeed, audits of various agencies’ cost-benefit analyses by the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, various inspector general offices, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and non-government research institutions routinely have found that regulatory agencies grossly overstate the benefits and underestimate or ignore the costs of the rules they are proposing.

Federal regulations often neglect the fact that poverty is by far the biggest killer of people.  The U.S. Office of Management and Budget estimates that every $7.5 million to $12 million in regulatory costs imposed on the economy results in a life lost. Based on this calculation, we can all be thankful that the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) rules have never taken effect.

The EPA, with reason to paint the benefits of its plan in the best light possible, estimated that the CPP would prevent 21,000 premature deaths through 2030.  By comparison, the Energy Information Administration has pegged the cumulative costs of the rule through 2030 at $1.23 trillion in lost gross domestic product.  Thus, the estimated 21,000 lives saved are dwarfed by the 102,500 to 164,000 early deaths the CPP could be expected to cause.

Because the economic and human health implications of regulations are profound, the science they are built upon must be absolutely unimpeachable.  Yet, based on the repeated actions of regulatory agencies to keep the science they’ve used to justify regulations secret – hidden from review from both outside researchers and the congressional committees that are supposed to exercise oversight over them – the public paying for the research can have little confidence that the rules forced upon them are scientifically justified.  This must change.

Federal agencies should be required to disclose all the science, models, and information exchanges used to make agency decisions, and no agency should be allowed to use any report to support or justify a rule if the research is not open to verification by outside parties.  Every government research contract should contain a provision requiring recipients to make available all assumptions, models, data, and email 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 terms. Transparency of all taxpayer-funded research or any research used to make rules imposed on the public should be the norm.

On March 29, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 (HONEST Act), which was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  The HONEST Act would prohibit the EPA from proposing, finalizing, or disseminating a risk, exposure, or hazard assessment, criteria document, standard, limitation, regulation, regulatory impact analysis, or guidance unless all scientific and technical information relied on to support such action is “the best available science, specifically identified, and publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”

This is a good start, but it does not go far enough.  The EPA is not alone in its use of secret science to expand its regulatory reach.  HONEST’s transparency requirements should be expanded beyond the EPA to every federal regulatory agency.

In addition, regulatory agencies should be required to supply any information requested by any congressional committee with oversight authority over them.  Congress should not have to issue subpoenas to get information from federal bureaucrats.  Any agency employee or administrator who refuses to comply with a congressional request for information in a timely manner should be open to discipline, including fines and immediate termination.

Discussing the HONEST Act at the Heartland Institute’s 12th International Conference on Climate Change, Smith said, “The days of ‘trust me’ science are over.”  The public should long for the day when that is finally true.

Congress has taken initial steps to improve the science itself and the public’s confidence in the science used to inform regulations.  It now needs to complete the job.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a research fellow on energy and the environment at the Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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