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Bush Definition of ‘Transparency’

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/johnson.jpgEnvironmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson (WDCpix)

The Bush administration has a pet word to describe its regulatory policy. The word is “transparent.” Last Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency chief Stephen Johnson used it to describe an ozone ruling in which the White House at the last minute reversed EPA recommendations for limiting smog. “It’s been a very *transparent *process,” Johnson told Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Ca.) and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

At a House Science subcommittee hearing the next day, Susan Dudley, the top White House regulatory officer with the Office of Management and Budget, used it in reference to EPA’s toxic chemical regulations. Critics, including the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, claimed that toxics assessment had been paralyzed by new EPA guidelines that allow the Pentagon, industry and other actors to stop EPA evaluation of toxics without offering any rationale. “OMB,” Dudley said, “supports EPA’s efforts to provide greater transparency.

Susandudley.jpg
Susandudley.jpg

To most of us, “transparent” means something you can see into. If the ozone regulations were transparent, for example, one might expect that President George W. Bush would explain why he overturned EPA’s scientific evidence-based recommendations. When brought up to describe toxics regulation, “transparent” might mean that the public could see the paper trail providing the scientific justification behind it

But the White House seems to have found another definition of “transparent.” It means a process that the White House can see into.

Take the case of ozone. This particle, a principle component of smog, is supposed to remain less than 84 parts per billion in the air under a 1997 law. The scientific committee that advises EPA on air pollution recommended, based on newer studies, that the allowable level be reduced to 60-70 ppb, a step that the scientists expect would prevent hundreds of deaths from asthma, lung and heart disease

They also recommended that an even lower standard be set for the growing season, in order to protect certain crops that can be harmed by excess ozone. EPA scientists recommended the limit be set at 60 ppb, and Johnson recommended a 75 ppb standard when he sent the rules on to the OMB. Though he compromised on the particle level, Johnson also recommended the secondary standard for summertime.

But a week before the deadline for the rules, Dudley notified EPA that the secondary standards were unacceptable, because they didn’t take into account the economic costs of the regulation — though EPA is not supposed to take cost into account when regulating under the Clean Air Act. Eventually, Bush stepped in and “re-decider-ed,” without providing any rationale. (Read an amusing account of this story here and a more straightforward analysis here.

As in an earlier decision, on California’s request to regulate greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions, the paper trail clearly shows that the White House has reversed Johnson on important EPA regulations after industry groups lodged strong protests. “Your decisions were right on, yet in each case you backed down, you took your directions from the White House,” Waxman said Tuesday, working himself into a gavel-pounding rage at the giddily stonewalling Johnson. “That’s not how our government is supposed to work.”

Johnson smiled and gave his rote response. “I evaluated the OMB and the presidents’ comments and I made a decision,” he said. There were many “uncertainties that I factored in … With input in this case from the president. It’s been a very transparent process. I’m very proud. I think that’s good government.

The White House has been similarly transparent in its handling of the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, the EPA’s database of toxic chemical assessments. When pondering how to manage industrial pollution, Superfund sites, farm runoff and the like, thousands of state, local and foreign governments rely on this critical source of impartial science, which gets 9 million visits a year.

But according to a report presented last month by the General Accountability Office, the IRIS assessment process has been strangled bureaucratically. In the past two years, only four of the EPA’s 32 draft toxics assessments have made it past Dudley’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which has the power to intervene in important agency rules.

How is this happening? According to the GAO, EPA has a new IRIS assessment process that includes two opportunities for OMB oversight. OMB often invites in the Pentagon, the Dept. of Energy and others to review these assessments, and it considers their comments “internal executive branch documents that may not be made public,” the GAO reported. In the cases of five potentially toxic chemicals, following these interagency reviews, OMB ordered EPA to stop the assessments.

In testimony on his report, the GAO’s John Stephenson said the EPA is setting lengthy deadlines to finish evaluations of the hundreds of toxic chemicals. There are always additional studies one could wait for but “if you take 10 years’’ to complete an assessment “it’s obsolete’’ when it is published, Stephenson said. As he pointed out, “If you wait until the science is perfect, you will never regulate.’’ He said that the EPA staffers he interviewed “felt they couldn’t move forward without OMB blessings several times along the way. A scientific agency is being obstructed by other agencies without science as their mission.

The OMB has long played an obstructive role in regulation. This may not be a bad thing all the time, since regulations can be costly, scientific information isn’t always precise and at some level it probably should be the prerogative of the president to decide that the cost of regulating a given hazard is not worth the cost.

What’s different about the current OMB, says Rick Melberth, a policy analyst at watchdog group OMB Watch, is that it’s gotten deeply involved not just in deciding what to do about potential risks, but in the risk assessment itself. “There has always been a clear separation between the information that goes into a decision, and the decision-making process,” he said. “This administration is not content with making the decisions the way they want to. They have a strategy of interfering with the science before it gets to the decision-making stage.

An example discussed in the GAO report is naphthalene, an apparently carcinogenic chemical that’s used by the military. EPA began assessing naphthalene in 2002, but OMB in 2006 brought the Pentagon in to comment on the risk assessment, delaying it for at least six more years.

EPA’s new review process, said House Science subcommittee chairman Brad Miller (D-N.C.) “effectively kills IRIS without honestly acknowledging that purpose.” Dudley disputed that, saying her office coordinates other agencies’ input into IRIS assessments: “Interagency coordination allows EPA to take advantage of the broad scientific expertise that exists throughout the government.

Listening to the GAO testimony transposed against that of Dudley and EPA officials, Melberth said, gives the impression “that we’re living in parallel universes. Orwellian is the word that comes to mind.”

In Orwellian terms. as in the novel, “1984,” transparency refers to the elimination of privacy. But that’s another story of our times.

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