There are several hundred people in Washington, D.C., paid with taxpayer dollars, who are not doing their jobs. This November we have the chance to do something about that because these people are members of the U.S. Congress, and in upcoming elections, they can be replaced with representatives who will live up to their responsibilities.
Those responsibilities, set out by the Constitution, include oversight of the executive branch, in this case the Trump administration. That administration's agencies are supposed to craft policies based, in part, on good evidence and good science. For the past 21 months, many of them have not. Yet Congress has refused to hold them accountable.
Exhibit A is the Environmental Protection Agency. Its mission, the agency says, is “to protect human health and the environment ... based on the best available scientific information.” Instead the EPA has ignored scientific evidence to justify lowering power plant emissions and greenhouse gas targets; made it more difficult for people to learn about potentially dangerous chemicals in their communities; replaced independent scientists on advisory boards with people connected to businesses the agency is supposed to regulate; and tried to make it harder to use science as a basis for regulations to protect human health.
During all of this, Congress has done next to nothing.
Consider what happened this past spring, when EPA director Scott Pruitt, who has since resigned amid a dozen ethics investigations, proposed that no research could be used to form environmental policy unless all data connected to it were publicly available. He said this proposed rule would ensure transparency. It was really a transparent effort to ignore science.
Specifically, it would ignore research that links industrial pollution to human health. These studies include confidential patient data, such as names, addresses, birthdays and health problems—data that were only provided by patients under a guarantee of privacy. The Six Cities study, begun in the 1970s, was the first research to show that particulate matter in the air hurts and kills people. It has been replicated several times. But because its publications do not include all private patient data, the study would be ignored by the EPA when it considers permissible pollution levels. The World Health Organization estimates that this kind of pollution, largely from minute particulates, kills three million people worldwide every year. For these reasons, the rule has been condemned by every major health and science group.
There were two congressional hearings involving the EPA after this rule was proposed. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce's environmental subcommittee interviewed Pruitt, starting off with the chair, Republican Representative John Shimkus of Illinois, stating he was “generally pleased” with what the agency was doing. The senior minority member, Democratic Representative Paul Tonko of New York, did voice concerns about science, but the focus of the hearing remained elsewhere. In the Senate, an appropriations subcommittee gave Pruitt a much tougher time on his personal ethics but also spent almost no effort on science.
Pruitt has departed, but there is no reason to think that his antiscience approach has gone with him. The health studies rule is still under active consideration. Further, the EPA announced looser power plant standards this August despite admitting, in its own document, that the extra pollution would lead to 1,400 additional deaths in the U.S. each year.
Similar evidence-free approaches have taken hold at the Department of the Interior, which is scuttling a wildfire-fighting science program whose discoveries help firefighters save lives by forecasting the direction of infernos. The Department of Energy has stopped a set of new efficiency standards for gas furnaces and other appliances. Congress has been quiet.
Congressional committees work by majority rule, so if the Republicans in the current majority do not want to hold hearings or use their control over agency budgets to compel changes, there are none. But the American people can make a change. The entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate are up for reelection right now (except for those who are retiring). We can, with our votes, make them do their jobs.