Can the House Save Science from the Trump Purge?

by Laurie Ristino

March 12, 2019

The Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has a weighty agenda – from policy reform to oversight of the Trump administration. Given all that the House Democrats have on their plate, urging them to restore policy rationality by making the support of science-based policy central to their strategy might seem like a prosaic ask, but it's critically important.  

Without science as the lodestar for government policymaking, anything goes, which is exactly the problem. As the Union of Concerned Scientists documented in a recent report, the Trump administration has been marginalizing science and isolating federal scientists for the past two years. Trump appointees have systematically undercut the science-based policies and regulations forged to protect human health and the environment. This has opened the door to irrational policymaking aimed at benefiting the industries and special interests to which these appointees are linked.

The bipartisan design of our foundational environmental laws, most from the late 1960s and '70s, grounded environmental regulation in science in an attempt to put their implementation above the political fray. For decades, those laws worked reasonably well because their implementation relied heavily on objective information yielded by science, rather than a partisan agenda.

Some commentators have traced the "war on science" to George W. Bush's presidency. As a federal attorney in public service at the time, I can attest to that administration's costly policy of denying human-caused climate change. Whatever the roots, Trump's shackling of science, facilitated by his congressional allies, goes far deeper and is more insidious.

Much has been written about the administration's assault on science at EPA, and rightly so, but this tactic is being used widely across the Trump administration. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a case in point. In 2017, author Michael Lewis published a Vanity Fair exposé on Trump USDA appointees' "seeming commitment to scientific ignorance." Then, last year, in what appeared to be a continuation of that strategy, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made the surprise announcement that he intended to reorganize and move two of USDA's research agencies, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute on Food and Agriculture (NIFA), out of Washington. That same day, he also reassigned Mary Bohman, ERS's administrator, to another agency. Scientists and academics widely decried the moves as disrupting and hampering independent research at USDA.

Fortunately, the House is now positioned to champion science with Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson as Chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. She takes over after six years of fellow Texan Rep. Lamar Smith's anti-science leadership and has vowed to restore respect for science, as well as address climate change. But she can't fight this battle alone.

The House will need to leverage its lawmaking authority to stop and reverse the Trump administration's science purge. During the Obama administration, Republicans were effective at targeting policies and initiatives they didn't like. Under Speaker Pelosi's leadership, the House Democratic caucus has mostly shown that they are capable of maintaining the same kind of united front and steely resolve to achieve their policy goals. For the sake of our democracy, let's hope their discipline holds firm.

The fiscal year 2019 omnibus appropriations bill, severely delayed by Trump's border wall funding debacle, was the House's first legislative opportunity. Fortunately, the conference report accompanying the legislation did include language directing USDA not to expend funds to move NIFA and ERS until the impacts of such a proposal are studied, creating a needed check on the administration's anti-science impulses. Looking forward, a prime opportunity for a wider reexamination of the role of science and science-based policy throughout the federal government is the upcoming fiscal year 2020 appropriations process, where the 116th Congress has the opportunity to look at funding priorities anew.

When policy is untethered from science, Americans get hurt and special interests win because public health and welfare take a backseat to profits and special favors. Science-based policymaking is one of our best governance tools to help prevent the tyranny of misinformation, and it is especially critical in an unprecedented administration like Trump's where facts are bit players, and self-aggrandizement, not the public good, is the modus operandi.

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Also from Laurie Ristino

Laurie Ristino is a Visiting Scholar at The George Washington University Law School and a consultant for Strategies for a Sustainable Future.

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