House GOP fails to make the EPA great again

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An American Bison stands in Badlands National Park in South Dakota on Jan. 10, 2010. 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Badlands National Park

How does one make the Environmental Protection Agency great again? Rep. Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology — and represents parts of Austin including West Campus — sought to answer that question on Tuesday in a hearing appropriately titled “Making EPA Great Again.” But you might find his solution a bit perplexing: It involves soliciting guidance from the very industries the EPA is meant to regulate, financially crippling the agency and turning it into a mouthpiece of the last major bastion of climate change denial in the world: the Republican Party.

Smith is likely to revive the Secret Science Reform Act, which would bar the EPA from enacting regulations backed by raw data that isn’t publicly available. Ostensibly meant to increase transparency, the bill is actually an effort to keep the EPA from doing its job. EPA regulations are often based on public health data, which must remain private because it includes the personal medical records of individual Americans. So by banning regulations based on private data, Smith’s bill cripples the EPA’s ability to protect public health.

Moreover, a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the 2015 version of the bill found that its provisions would cost $250 million annually to implement over the next few years but it only affords the EPA an additional $1 million to carry out those provisions. So in addition to weakening its regulatory capacity, Smith’s bill is also designed to put the agency in a financial bind.

Maybe that’s why the bill is so popular with industries that often run afoul of public health regulations. Jeffrey Holmstead, a coal company lobbyist, called the reforms included in the Secret Science Act “important and meaningful” in his testimony before the committee on Tuesday, adding that “when regulations impose billions of dollars on consumers and businesses, it is surely appropriate for the government to … ensure that the scientific information used to support those regulations can be publicly available.” Holmstead was one oaf three witnesses called by the Republican majority to testify during the hearing. All three were associated with fossil fuel or chemical interest groups.

Of course, this is all part of Lamar Smith’s war on established science as chair of the House Science Committee. During the hearing, he also cited a Daily Mail article about Dr. John Bates, a so-called whistleblower who used to work at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now claims that scientists at the agency manipulated data in a 2015 study about climate change. The findings of that study have been independently verified by numerous other institutions, and there’s no evidence to suggest data manipulation outside of Bates’ claim. Nevertheless, in a press release posted on the House Science Committee’s website, Smith thanked Bates for “exposing the previous administration’s efforts to push their costly climate agenda at the expense of scientific integrity.”

These antics are a reminder that some of the most unsavory aspects of the new political landscape have nothing to do with the man in the White House. Trump certainly brings his own distinctly authoritarian flavor, but he didn’t invent the concept of denying reality at the expense of public health and safety. That tradition is time-honored in Republican politics, and it’s one that Lamar Smith — along with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology — is proud to continue on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and his constituents in Austin.

Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. Follow him on twitter @samgroves