CAPITOL HILL – Republicans in Congress are having a second go at a measure they say will increase transparency around federal environmental regulations.
Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted 228-194 to pass the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act), which prohibits the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from proposing an action, including a new regulation, unless the scientific and technical information used to make that decision is “the best available science; specifically identified; and publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”
Both Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.-4) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.-5) voted against the measure.
Brown said he views the bill as part of a larger effort to undermine the EPA.
“Politicians shouldn’t be telling scientist how to do their research. That’s why I voted against the GOP bill to restrict the EPA’s ability to use science to protect public health and the environment,” he said. “This partisan effort will impede the EPA from using the best available science, harm their ability to conduct future research, will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year and makes it much easier for industry to pollute.”
On the floor, Democrats’ main argument was the same: they feel the bill is a stealth attempt to “hamstring the ability of the EPA to do about anything to protect the American public,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas-30).
“The EPA relies upon science drawn from many sources. Since EPA does not own or control the data from most of those sources, the EPA would have no authority to order the public release of such data. This would preclude the EPA from using the vast majority of peer-reviewed science,” she said.
Democrats also brought up privacy concerns. The bill does require that any personal data or trade secrets be redacted from the publicly available documents, but the EPA administrator has the ability to authorize individuals to view the un-redacted versions. Several were concerned about which entities would be granted such permission, and what purposes they would have for viewing that data.
The passage in question reads, “The redacted information described in paragraph shall be disclosed to a person only after such person signs a written confidentiality agreement with the administrator, subject to guidance to be developed by the administrator.”
Republicans on the floor repeatedly offered assurances that privacy would be protected, citing the redaction provisions, but did not offer any counter to the Democrats’ concern about what Johnson called the “unrestricted process” for accessing the un-redacted versions.
Democrats also contended that some of the data used by EPA, such as from oil spills, is by nature unable to be replicated.
On the Republican side, transparency was the main precept cited in support of the bill.
“Our goal is to help advance not just any science, but the best science,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas-21), the bill’s sponsor. “In our modern information age, federal regulations should be based only upon data that is available for every American to see and that can be subjected to independent review.”
He added that the bill “ensures that the EPA is not promoting a one-sided, ideological agenda” and said the price tag some Democrats cited – $250 million – was two years old and no longer accurate.
Some Republicans used their time on the floor to speak against EPA regulations in general, saying they hurt businesses in their districts. But Rep. David Schweikert (R- Ariz.-6) said the HONEST Act doesn’t actually do anything about the number of regulations in place.
“You’re conflating all these things that this bill doesn’t do,” he said. “This bill doesn’t reduce regulations. In many ways, it allows us all to participate in the citizen science to understand whether we’re doing it the right way.”
The HONEST Act is now in the U.S. Senate. A similar bill, the Secret Science Reform Act, also passed through the House last session, but died in the Senate. Since the 2016 election increased the number of Republicans in the chamber, the measure has a better chance of passing this year. But Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) says he does not plan to support it.
“I support transparency at our federal agencies, but I also support the protection of personal privacy,” he said. “This Republican bill is nothing but a backdoor effort to stop climate change research. If this bill were to become law, the EPA could not use top research from our nation’s universities. We need to tackle climate change, not pretend it doesn’t exist.”