OMB Expands Influence Over Scientific Decisions

Under the leadership of John Graham, OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which acts as an arm of the White House, is expanding its influence over scientific questions that have previously been left to federal regulatory agencies, hiring a number of scientific experts for the first time in its history. The exact responsibilities of these new employees (see bios below) are still unclear. An OMB spokesperson would only say that they were brought on to “broaden the range of expertise that OIRA can bring to bear on policy issues.” What is clear is OIRA’s expanding role. For more than two decades, OIRA has performed mainly a review function, acting as a clearinghouse for agency regulatory proposals and collections of information (such as tax forms or industrial emissions reports). Under Graham, however, OIRA has started to act like a regulatory agency itself, playing a more “up front” role, in Graham’s words, and centralizing control over decision-making at the White House. In particular, this has meant setting regulatory priorities (see here and here); specifying methods for evaluating health and safety risks (see here and here); and even participating in the development of regulation (see here). The hiring of scientific experts is a further manifestation of this transformation. These experts include a toxicologist, an environmental engineer, and an environmental health scientist with a background in epidemiology. Graham also planned to add two more employees with scientific backgrounds, according to OIRA’s 2002 report on regulation (see page 31), but OMB Watch was unable to ascertain if this has happened, as OMB has been unresponsive to our inquiries. We have a FOIA request pending, and will report the results when we receive a response. In addition, Graham recently hired the director of policy, economics, and risk analysis for the American Chemistry Council (the chemical industry’s trade association and lobby shop); a recent Ph.D. in health policy at Harvard, who was a student of Graham’s and previously worked as a research assistant at the conservative American Enterprise Institute; and an economist at the Food and Drug Administration, who specializes in cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment. (These eight new hires bring the total of full-time OIRA employees to 55. OIRA operated with 47 employees through the last four years of the Clinton administration, down from 60 in 1992.) With these scientists, jurisdictional questions arise. In the case of health and safety decisions, Congress has delegated responsibility exclusively to regulatory agencies, such as EPA, the Dept. of Transportation, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Under presidential executive order (whose origins date to the first year of the Reagan administration), these agencies must submit their regulatory proposals to OIRA for review and approval. These reviews -- which have never been blessed by Congress -- have generally focused on economic considerations, including agency cost-benefit analysis, a particular interest of Graham’s. As a result, OIRA is staffed primarily by economists and policy analysts. The hiring of scientists signals a more ambitious effort to usurp agency authority, giving Graham ammunition to question not only the economic merits of regulation, but also the scientific merits. In fact, Graham considered taking this a step further by creating OIRA’s own standing scientific advisory panel of outside experts, but decided not to go forward at this time, in part because of limited resources (see page 34 of OIRA’s 2002 report on regulation). Moreover, as OMB Watch previously documented, OIRA recently participated in a lengthy, and unprecedented, White House review of an EPA report on children’s health, which, among other things, involved scientific questions about the effects of mercury. Why is this move into the scientific arena so troubling? Unlike OIRA, health and safety agencies have the statutory authority to address scientific questions -- which go to the need for regulation -- and accordingly, have the necessary experience, along with the specific built-in expertise to provide the answers. They also have relationships with affected communities, as well as established processes for involving the public and outside experts, and must answer to Congress and the courts for regulatory performance. None of this is true for OIRA, which remains almost entirely unaccountable for its actions, and as a White House office, is more prone to political interference and special interest influence. (OMB Watch previously documented the Bush administration’s mixing of science and politics here.) Also at issue is Graham’s view of what constitutes “sound science” -- a favorite buzz phrase of conservatives. In OIRA’s recent draft report to Congress on the costs and benefits of regulation, Graham asked for comments on the “appropriate level of precaution” in measuring health, safety, and environmental risks. The wording of this request seemed to paint a target on the “precautionary principle,” which according to its proponents, advises precautionary action when “activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health ... even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” (OMB Watch discussed this topic in detail in comments to OIRA.) Graham is openly dismissive of the precautionary principle, once describing it as “a mythical creature, kind of like a unicorn,” and instead apparently wants to raise the bar on scientific certainty, which could be used to thwart new health, safety, and environmental standards. Take the issue of global warming, for example. There is overwhelming scientific consensus on the fundamentals: Global warming is happening; it is associated with human activity; and some very bad things will happen as a result (and in fact, already have). Yet there is a great deal of debate and uncertainty over specific consequences. Where the precautionary principle would advise action, the administration has seized on this uncertainty, arguing in its flagship environmental proposal, the Clear Skies Initiative, that we should wait until 2012 to see if “sound science justifies further policy action.” On its face, it’s hard to argue against the phrase “sound science,” which is an essential part of regulatory decision-making. Yet for conservatives and industry, it is used to imply a level of certainty that could only be achieved through a crystal ball. Unfortunately, if we follow their solution and wait around to see what happens, the damage will have been done and it will be too late. Indeed, it is generally much easier and cheaper to prevent a problem before it occurs than it is to reverse damage already done. And in fact, some damage (e.g., deaths, disease, or extinction of species and ecosystems) will be impossible to reverse. What does this have to do with OIRA’s new scientific experts? It goes to how Graham plans to use them. Graham, who is not a scientist, wants to raise questions about agency scientific evaluations in the same way he does for economic analysis. Yet on his own, he is unable to do this with any credibility or authority. A team of scientific experts could give him that -- which is especially ominous given Graham’s skepticism of precautionary action and insistence on ever-higher levels of scientific certainty. New OIRA Hires According to OMB, the new hires “all work with, and provide assistance to, other OIRA staff reviewing draft regulations or information collections, or conducting other OIRA initiatives.” They are: Nancy Beck was hired as a policy analyst for toxicology and risk assessment in OIRA’s Statistical and Science Policy Branch. Previously, she was a science and technology fellow at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment and worked as a toxicologist at Washington state’s Department of Health. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington School of Public Health in 1998. Keith Belton, former director of policy, economics, and risk analysis for the American Chemistry Council -- the chemical industry’s politically powerful trade association and lobby shop -- has been hired as a policy analyst/desk officer for the natural resources, energy and agriculture branch at OIRA. Dominic Mancini, an economist for the health, transportation and general government branch of OIRA, previously worked as an economist at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. There he prepared cost-benefit analyses and risk assessments on proposed and final rules. He is a member of the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA), and previously served as treasurer for SRA’s cost-benefit and risk analysis specialty group. In the past, he provided research support for international reproductive health and demographic surveys at the Carolina Population Center. Dr. Mancini received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 2000. Margo Schwab, an environmental health scientist, has been hired as a policy analyst for the statistical and science policy branch of OIRA, focusing on epidemiology and risk assessment, both areas in which she has an extensive background. She recently served as the assistant director of the Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute and on the faculty of the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Prior to that she was a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency in the exposure assessment area and also led environmental health capacity building for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa. She has also directed field projects at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Colorado. She obtained her Ph.D. from Clark University in 1988. Edmond Toy, who recently obtained a Ph.D. in health policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, works as a policy analyst/engineer for the natural resources, energy, and agriculture branch at OIRA. At Harvard, he performed research examining the relative environmental, energy, and safety impacts of cars and light trucks in the U.S. transportation sector, and was the lead author of a study on diesel and natural gas. He previously worked at Resources for the Future, a think tank that performs research on environmental and natural resource issues; EPA; the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment; and Industrial Economics, Inc., an environmental policy consulting firm. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1993 from Stanford University in civil/environmental engineering and the program in values, technology, science, and society. He received an MS in technology and policy and an MS in civil/environmental engineering from MIT in 1995. Fumie Yokota works as a policy analyst/health economist in the health, transportation and general government branch of OIRA. She graduated in 1996 from Stanford University with a B.S. and M.S. in earth systems, an interdisciplinary environmental science, policy, and technology program, with a concentration in environmental economics. She was a recent Ph.D. candidate in Health Policy at Harvard and was reportedly scheduled to defend her thesis this past January. At Harvard, Yokota was a student of John Graham’s, and last spring signed onto a letter expressing support for his nomination as OIRA administrator. Before her studies at Harvard, she worked as a research assistant in the economic policy division of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, which once claimed Vice President Dick Cheney and more recently Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, as board trustees.
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