What Else Should Congress Investigate?

by Daniel Farber

April 12, 2019

Originally published on Legal Planet.

Every day, it seems that there is a headline about some investigation involving campaign finance violations, the White House, or the actions of some foreign power. Perhaps that's all the bandwidth that Congress has. But there are other areas calling out for inquiry. Here are just a few:

CAFE Standards. The car industry asked for delays and modifications in fuel efficiency standards. The administration came back with a drastic rollback that went far beyond what industry requested, to the dismay of at least some major car firms. How did that happen? Outside economists scoff at the analysis Department of Transportation officials ran roughshod over EPA staff, whose complaints were squelched by the White House. Who exactly was responsible for those decisions? And what role did the oil companies play behind the scenes? There are already indications that oil companies were somewhat involved, but that may be just the tip of the iceberg.

The Coal Industry. Big Coal has been an outsized influence on the Trump administration, far beyond its economic heft. In some instances, the Trump administration has favored them over the utilities that are their customers and even over the oil and gas industry. So how did this happen? Why is it that Robert Murray has such easy access to the White House? On the surface, it seems to reflect Trump's successful use of coal miners as a symbol of the imperiled "Old Economy" and perhaps some well-placed but perfectly legal campaign contributions. On the other hand, the coal industry is in desperate straits, and desperate people can take desperate actions, some of them on the wrong side of the law. And all forms of influence peddling seem rife in Washington these days. Surely this deserves a closer look. And it would also be interesting to find out when the big coal companies first learned about climate change, how they responded, and whether they were truthful in their public statements. What did they know and when did they know it?

Silencing Science. When the Trump administration came to town, massive amounts of information disappeared from government websites, including a lot of environmental data. Much but not all that data eventually reappeared, if only in archives. In the meantime, EPA purged independent academics from its science advisory board, closed its board of air pollution experts, and began a rule to keep crucial public health studies out of the regulatory process. That rule was announced before it had cleared White House review; the White House immediately backdated its review; but even accepting the backdating, the review must have gone through with unprecedented speed. And there is much more. All of this calls out for investigation.

Stealth Deregulation. All the headlines go to rulemaking proceedings which formally rescind existing rules. But the administration has used several very effective, very low-visibility techniques, as well. Enforcement actions and fines have virtually vanished. Agency vacancies aren't filled. And money, such as disaster aid for Puerto Rico, is appropriated by Congress but mysteriously remains unspent. Trump has apparently tried to prevent any money from going to Puerto Rico. Hearings would help expose these practices to the light of day.

The current leadership of the Interior Department and EPA has steered away from the blatant misconduct of the Zinke and Pruitt era. But they are no more benign in their intentions, and no less under the influence of special interests and ideologues. The House of Representatives should hold their actions up to public scrutiny.

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Daniel A. Farber is the Sho Sato Professor of Law and Director of the California Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.

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