CORN: A Quiet Win for Bush, Inc.

On May 17, the Senate mounted one of its most important hearings of the year. It was not about the tax cuts, Social Security, missile defense, or health care. It was not about a high-profile nominee like Ted Olson, the Bush campaign lawyer rewarded with the Solicitor General post.

Rather, the session focused on a little-known White House position -- administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is part of the Office of Management and Budget -- and the fellow tapped to fill the spot, John Graham.

The job of reviewing all the regulations kicked out by the various federal agencies might sound like a hotbed of paper-pushing, but it is one of extreme consequence. The person who sits behind this desk is the regulatory czar of the entire federal government; he or she holds the power to slow down or smother public health, workplace safety, and environmental standards.

Corporate America has cheered the selection of Graham. The founding director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, Graham has been a crusading champion of cost-benefit and cost-effective analysis, which often works to industry's advantage, for hard-and-fast economic calculations regarding regulations discount or neglect ethical and moral concerns.

Not surprisingly, his nomination has been assailed by environmentalists, consumer groups, and occupational safety advocates. In a letter opposing Graham, a group of past federal regulators -- including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich -- noted, "We agree that economic analysis generally plays an important role in policy making. But increasing the role that economic analysis plays in rulemaking threatens to crowd out considerations of equal or perhaps greater importance that are harder to quantify and put in terms of dollars -- for example, what is the dollar value of making public spaces accessible so a paraplegic can participate fully in community activities? How should we quantify the worth of protecting private medical information from commercial disclosure?...How do you quantify the real value of a healthy ecosystem?"

Then there is the question of Graham's financial ties. For years, he has solicited contributions from corporations and trade association, while conducting studies on matters of concern to those parties. And -- what a coincidence -- most of his research has ended up supporting industry positions.

A group of prominent public health academicians -- including Dr. Eric Chivian, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine -- complained that Graham:

...has solicited money from [tobacco manufacturer] Phillip Morris while criticizing the EPA's risk assessment on the dangers of second-hand smoke. He has greatly overestimated the costs of preventing leukemia caused by exposure to benzene in gasoline while accepting funds from the American Petroleum Institute. He has downplayed EPA's warnings about cancer risk from dioxin exposure while being supported by several major dioxin producers, including incinerators, pulp, and paper companies. He has advocated against regulating driving while simultaneously talking on cellular phones in research underwritten by a $300,000 grant from AT&T Wireless Communications. And he has been a major spokesperson before Congress on behalf of industries' 'regulatory reform' agenda, while being supported by large grants of unrestricted funds from chemical, petroleum, timber, tobacco, automobile, electric power, mining, pharmaceutical, and manufacturing industries.
It could be that Graham is a honest policy wonk whose work just happens to buttress his benefactors' positions more times than not. (Would Exxon, DuPont, Monsanto, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, and the Chemical Manufacturers Association cut checks to a center that constantly poked them in eye?)

Or it could be that Graham is a risk-analysis geek who is so engaged by the theoretics of his field that he feels compelled to toss out a provocative notion once in a while. Why, he has wondered, should we spend millions of dollars to prevent possible cancer cases years down the road when that money could be applied to safety measures -- say, disseminating bicycle helmets -- that would save lives right now? Well, that is something to ponder -- until you think, why not do both? Or, should some kids be contaminated by carcinogens so the money can be used for safer playgrounds for other kids?

In any event, the Senate Government Affairs Committee hearing on his nomination -- which drew little media attention -- provided Graham the chance to assuage the fears of those health-and-safety worrywarts who have depicted him as the Darth Vader of the risk-analysis community.

Graham's supporters on the committee did attempt to soften his edges. They cited testimonials in Graham's favor and trotted out a half-a-dozen examples of research conducted by his center that did not jibe with industry's wishes.

Senator Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, accused Graham's detractors of character assassination. Thompson hailed Graham for having "explored new ideas" in his field, asserting "that's what academic research is all about." (Republican Senators did not hold such an open-minded view when they pummelled Lani Guinier, President Clinton's choice to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department, for opinions cited in her academic writings.)

Thompson also quipped, "It's kind of ironic for Congress to be criticizing someone for taking money from somebody and then passing judgment on interests that have to do with their business. We do that on a daily basis....I don't think we ought to get too high up on our high-horse in regards to that." (In other words, because the sleazy campaign finance system undermines the integrity of the US Senate, Senators ought to be reluctant to criticize conflicts-of-interest elsewhere.)

When the Republicans were talking about him, it seemed that Graham was the Mister Rogers of the regulatory set. When he was grilled by Democrats Richard Durbin and Joe Lieberman, he seemed much less friendly to workers, consumers, and the environment. Graham maintained he and his center strive to "maintain objectivity" and have "simply followed" the data "wherever they may lead us."

Lieberman took the first swing at Graham. He noted that in a 1995 article Graham argued that regulations that control toxic substances cost much more than those related to injury-prevention. For instance, Graham had claimed that $115.6 million spent on curtailing benzene emissions would save five life-years. ( A life-year is a technical term used by reg-heads.) But the same amount expended on collapsible steering wheels would save 1684 life-years.

But, Lieberman countered, such an exercise does not take into account "whose costs and whose benefits." In another article, Graham suggested it might make sense to allow an oil refinery to release more toxic pollutants, if that company funded AIDS-prevention or violence-prevention programs. "How would that help the family who lived next to the refinery?" Lieberman asked.

"That's a very complicated and well-framed question," Graham said. (Congressional Testimony 101: always flatter the Senators for asking good questions.) In a short reply, Graham said that perhaps if the violence-prevention program registered tremendous success in the neighborhood next to the plant, "you might be able to persuade the people living next to the refinery" to accept the deal. So they would breathe more dangerous air in order to have better police -- or private security -- patrols. That would be the trade-off. Graham did concede, "You can make equity objections against that kind of trade."

Lieberman questioned Graham about his testimony at a previous congressional hearing, where Graham was asked how people should evaluate risks. At that session, Graham had replied, "The first thing we should keep in mind is, if you are a risk-assessor or a scientist at one of the federal regulatory agencies, you don't usually have an incentive to find an alleged hazard does not exist, because if you highlight the fact that a hazard exists, you may attract the attention of Congress and the media and thereby garner public support and resources for your agency."

So it would seem that Graham -- who is angling to be the guy who nays or ayes all federal safety standards -- has a pronounced bias against government scientists and believes they are cooking the books to win notice and dollars. "Do you stand by that?" Lieberman inquired.

An honest answer probably would have been, "Sure do, Senator, and I'd like to whip those public-sector scientists into shape and make sure these stuck-in-the-lab Chicken Littles don't throw unnecessary costs upon American businesses. I will be proud to advance such a postion for the Bush Administration."

Instead, Graham tersely characterized his anti-scientist statement as "plausible speculation." Pressed by Lieberman, he added, "When I transition from college professor to OIRA administrator, I am going to have to be a little more respectful of the public-spiritedness and intentions of agency risk-assessors."

A little more? Clearly, Bush is trying to put into place a non-scientist (his PhD is in public affairs) who is deeply suspicious of the men and women who work the science.

Next Durbin roughed him up. In response to questions from Durbin, Graham acknowledged that in 1992 he had returned a $25,000 donation from Phillip Morris because the dean of Harvard's public health school -- to which Graham's center is attached -- thought the donation was inappropriate. ("I still have some reservations with that judgment," Graham testified.) But when Graham returned the check, he asked Phillip Morris to send it back to the center through Kraft Foods, a subsidiary. "Did you see any ethical problem there?" Durbin inquired. Graham did not.

Durbin then cited another extreme Graham statement: "the evidence on pesticide residue on food as a health problem is virtually nonexistent -- it's pure speculation." The National Academy of Sciences, Durbin pointed out, has declared that "changes are needed to protect children from pesticides in diets."

Graham stuck to his position, asserting that "there's pretty heated debate within the scientific community" in this area. An irritated Durbin asked Graham what he knew about methyl parathion? "Not much," Graham answered. And Durbin went to town, for methyl parathion, one of the most toxic pesticides, had its use severely restricted by the EPA in 1999 after extensive scientific review found that methyl parathion residue on fruits and vegetables posed dietary risks to children. "From your point of view," Durbin said, "they shouldn't have done that...that [risk-assessment] was 'pure speculation.'"

Graham had not much of a retreat available: "I haven't studied that particular example." Durbin pounced: "That's what troubles us." After all, Graham had felt free to pronounce that the pesticide-on-food risk was "pure s peculation" -- and he was unaware of this major episode. Graham, Durbin observed, would be the "gatekeeper on food safety" and the "last word at OMB on health and safety regulation." Yet he has cozied up to industry, brazenly accused government scientists of rigging regulations for their own self-interest, and popped off on scientific matters beyond his expertise to diminish safety threats.

How did the committee respond to Graham's performance? It voted 9-3 in favor of his nomination; only Durbin, Lieberman, and Bob Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, dissented.

The change in Senate control has delayed bringing the nomination to the Senate floor, but Graham is expected to be approved without much fuss. Which is unfortunate.

Senate Democrats got riled up over Ted Olson. But Graham poses greater danger, for he will be operating in an obscure-but-influential corner of the administration. If Graham is installed at OIRA, the Bushies and their sponsors in the business community will have won a significant (and damn too easy) battle in their war against health-and-safety standards that protect workers, consumers and the environment. Let's toast their success with a glass of arsenic-laced water.

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