Bush's Fox Watching the Hen House

Regulating use of cellular phones by drivers would be too costly, concludes a study by Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis (HCRA)...funded with, ahem, $300,000 from AT&T Wireless Communications. John Graham, the Center's director, solicits funds from tobacco giant Phillip Morris...and offers the company's executives a chance to review before publication the chapter on smoking in a book he is writing about the everyday risks people face.

Hearing about these things, you may not find them so shocking. If a group receives funding from a special interest, is it so outrageous that their research supports the special interest's views?

You may experience more of a jolt, though, when you find out that the same John Graham will be the nation's next "regulatory czar," the public official in charge of overseeing all government regulations on environment, health, and safety. The Senate voted 61-37 on Thursday to approve Graham as director of the Office of Information and Regulator Affairs (OIRA), a little-known but extremely powerful position in the Office of Management and Budget. And many of the same special interests that fund Harvard's Center are also major campaign contributors, giving generous amounts to the GOP and President George Bush's campaign.

Before the Environmental Protection Agency issues a new standard for clean air, it goes through OIRA. Before the Food and Drug Administration makes a change to its drug approval process, it goes through OIRA. Before the Agriculture Department revamps its meat inspection rules, it goes through OIRA. Graham has made his name as leader of the Harvard Center -- which raked in cash from such powerful companies and trade associations as Dow, 3M, DuPont, Monsanto, and Exxon, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the American Petroleum Institute. HCRA has had more than 100 corporate and trade association funders since it was founded 12 years ago, and corporations contribute 60 percent of the Center's annual budget, according to the watchdog group Public Citizen.

If history is any teacher, OIRA under Graham could become a backdoor for these special interests to stall health, safety, and environmental regulations. That is what happened under the Reagan and elder Bush Administrations. Vice President Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, which worked with OIRA, became infamous as a conduit for special interests to seek through the bureaucratic process what they couldn't win in Congress.

Most of the special interests that fund Graham's Center are also generous campaign contributors. For example, AT&T and its subsidiaries, (AT&T is the parent company of AT&T Wireless), was the third most lavish donor in the 2000 elections, contributing more than $5 million, nearly half of that in soft money contributions to the GOP, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Auto manufacturers gave $2.2 million, more than $126,000 of that directly to President George Bush's campaign fund. The chemical industry gave more than $11 million, more than half a million of which went to Bush's campaign. Many of the senators who voted to approve Graham's nomination, are also, of course, recipients of these special interests' largesse.

As director of OIRA, these special interests will, in a sense, continue funding Graham's work. Making recommendations from Harvard's ivory tower is one thing. It is no academic matter, however, when campaign contributors have influence to delay or revoke crucial health, safety, and environmental standards.

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