How House Democrats can finally stymie Trump's relentless assault on science
Douglas Costle, who helped create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and then ran it during Jimmy Carter’s administration, died recently at the age of 79. If the Trump administration has its way, the agency as we know it will die along with him.
“Clean air is not an aesthetic luxury,” Costle said when he took the job as EPA administrator. “It is a public health necessity.”
President Trump said pretty much the same thing in an interview just after winning the election. “Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important,” he told The New York Times. He stuck to that mantra during a CNN interview last November. “I want clean air,” he said. “I want clean water. Very important.”
The difference is, Costle didn’t just talk the talk. At his very first news conference as EPA administrator, he announced the recall of 135,000 Cadillacs because the cars’ emissions violated the Clean Air Act. Under his watch, the agency banned aerosol spray fluorocarbons to protect the Earth’s ozone layer. In the first two months of his tenure, he hired 600 new scientists and analysts to bolster the agency’s staff.
Trump is Costle’s antithesis. His administration plans to roll back car emissions standards. It killed power plant carbon emission rules. It has also shrunk the EPA workforce to levels not seen in 35 years. That’s just three of too many examples. According to a recent report by my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the number of Trump administration attacks on science-based public health and environmental safeguards in its first two years in office is unprecedented.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, however. With an engaged public and the House of Representatives’ oversight powers now controlled by Democrats, there may be just enough leverage to turn things around—or at least tie the administration’s hands before it can do any more damage.
A Dismal Record
First the bad news: our 60-page report documents 80 Trump administration attacks on science. A sample list includes:
- Hollowing out federal science agencies, filling fewer than half of key science appointee positions, and ensuring that political appointees and career staff ignore scientific advice;
- Doctoring and killing scientific studies that contradicted industry-friendly policies;
- Disbanding key EPA scientific advisory committees, cutting back on how often the remaining committees can meet, and banning scientists who have EPA grants from serving on them; and
- Stacking advisory committees with lobbyists from polluting industries.
In fact, the Trump administration has packed the entire executive branch with lobbyists. When Trump promised to “drain the swamp” during his campaign, he wasn’t talking about ridding the government of cronyism and corruption; he was talking about getting rid of civil servants. As of today, the Interior Department is being run by a former oil industry lobbyist, the Defense Department is being run by a former aerospace industry executive, the Department of Health and Human Services is being run by a former pharmaceutical industry lobbyist and the EPA is being run by a former coal industry lobbyist.
The extent of this corporate coup extends well beyond department heads. A March 2018 ProPublica report foundthat at least 187 political appointees had been lobbyists, and many of them are now overseeing the industries they used to represent. It also found that more than 250 people associated with Trump’s presidential campaign and at least 125 staff members from nonprofit libertarian groups are now deep inside federal agencies, working to repeal decades of consumer, workplace, health and environmental protections.
Thus far, Trump appointees have been all too successful. According to a recent analysis by The New York Times, the administration had weakened or killed 47 environmental rules by the end of last year and were in the process of rolling back another 31. That doesn’t bode well for public health. A May 2018 analysis by a Harvard economist and statistician conservatively estimated that the administration’s environmental rollbacks could lead to 80,000 extra premature deaths per decade and respiratory problems for more than 1 million Americans.
At the same time the administration is weakening and killing environmental safeguards, it has taken the EPA cop off the beat. Civil penalties for polluters have dropped to their lowest average level since 1994, according to an analysis by a former EPA enforcement official. For the 20 years before Trump was elected, EPA civil fines averaged $500 million a year. Last fiscal year’s total was only $72 million—an 85 percent drop.
The Trump administration also has opened up more public land to development at bargain basement rates. The amount of land on the chopping block has jumped 500 percent since 2016, and the Bureau of Land Management has streamlined and shortened the leasing application process.
Then there’s the administration’s scientifically indefensible position on climate change. According to our recent report, the administration “has repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or suppressed the science of climate change, limiting the ability of federal scientists to speak about, report on, or even study it.” Remarkably, the administration refrained from censoring the latest edition of the National Climate Assessment, but it released it on the Friday after Thanksgiving to limit its impact. Trump, meanwhile, rejected the report out of hand. “I’ve seen it. I’ve read some of it. It’s fine,” he told a CNN reporter. But when the reporter then mentioned that the study concluded that “the economic impact [of climate change] will be devastating,” Trump responded, “I don’t believe it.”
No Place Left to Go But Up
So, what is there to be hopeful about?
Our report offers examples in which coalitions of scientists, public interest groups and sometimes even companies have won some hard-fought victories, including blocking Trump nominees with major conflicts of interest and securing federal protection for endangered species.
Likewise, some of Trump’s ethically challenged appointees, notably, disgraced former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, rushed to roll back regulations and produced poorly crafted rulemakings that cannot withstand legal challenges. At least six of Pruitt’s attempts to weaken or delay Obama-era rules, including ones covering pesticides, lead paint and renewable fuels, were struck down by the courts.
But the biggest flicker of hope is due to the results of last November’s election. In the new Congress, a dozen members of the House and Senate have science, technology or medical backgrounds, more than ever before. According to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the number of climate science deniers in Congress dropped 17 percent, from 180 to 150, because 47 deniers retired, resigned or lost their 2018 re-election bids. Last but certainly not least, the Democrats took back the House, giving them control over the agenda, the power of the purse and the ability to issue subpoenas.
One of the most consequential changes happened at the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, whose chairman for the last six years, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, retired at the end of the last session. During his tenure, Smith—who has made millions of dollars from oil and gas leases on his Texas property—rejected mainstream climate science, harassed federal climate scientists and tried to sabotage the EPA’s ability to carry out its mission.
The incoming chair of the committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, also hails from Texas, but that’s where the similarities between her and Smith end. In a statement she issued after the November election, Johnson promised to “restore the credibility of the Science Committee as a place where science is respected,” “address the challenge of climate change,” and defend “the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks.”
Our report recommends a number of steps members of Congress on both sides of the aisle can take to blunt the Trump administration’s assault on science, including strengthening science-based rules and passing legislation that defends federal scientists, and lead author Jacob Carter says Johnson’s agenda is “promising.”
“For the first time in two years, we can see some meaningful checks and balances in Washington,” said Carter, who worked at the EPA during the Obama administration. “That is how it is supposed to work. Congress should press the administration to stop undermining science and do its job of protecting the public. And the science community can play a meaningful role if scientists step up and get engaged as constituents. There’s a lot of damage to undo, but we have a roadmap to get there.”
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.