Fraser Forum

Panic over Trump’s EPA overhaul much ado about nothing

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People are suddenly panicked over the Trump administration’s decision to overhaul a number of advisory committees at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in the Department of Interior. A headline in the Washington Post blares: “EPA dismisses half of key board’s scientific advisors; Interior suspends more than 200 advisory panels.”

Of course, the headline doesn’t really tell the tale. In the body of the article we read that:

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt decided to replace half of the members on one of its key scientific review boards, while Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is “reviewing the charter and charge” of more than 200 advisory boards, committees and other entities both within and outside his department. EPA and Interior officials began informing current members of the move Friday, and notifications continued over the weekend.

A news website named Quartz goes further: “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is slowly turning its back on everything it was set up to protect.” And of course, no story is complete without the New York Times, which tells us “E.P.A Dismisses Members of Major Scientific Review Board.”

This all sounds pretty bad, until you realize the utter normalcy of what is happening.

New presidents appoint new agency administrators, they appoint their deputies, and they re-direct their agencies priorities and activities toward new priorities. Programs are added, programs are killed, and naturally, that affects advisory boards. This is business as usual.

Advisory committees (and their composition) are regulated in the U.S. under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA, 1972) and are required to be non-partisan, and reflect “balanced points of view.”

Despite a few scientists quoted as having expected their terms of service to be extended, service on advisory boards are virtually all “at pleasure” appointments that can be terminated at any time. Pretty much everyone in Washington knows that.

The question of who should serve on advisory panels in the United States has been controversial for many decades, and not just in environmental agencies. Controversies have arisen about advisory panels in pharmaceutical regulation, transportation, commerce and more.

According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, George Washington empanelled the first U.S. advisory committee to investigate the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. The first criticism of its constituency probably hit the papers in 1795.

Controversy over advisory boards has been particularly notable in the realm of environmental protection. Environmental activist groups have long opposed any participation on advisory panels by anyone who may have a less-aggressive environmental agenda then they do. For a more recent example, in 1996 the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) was headed by a highly accomplished environmental scientist who was castigated because he had previously worked for General Motors.

Others (including myself) would argue that having a diverse group of qualified people on advisory boards adds important balance and helps those boards better consider what is or is not possible to achieve, and makes for better policy.
Changing review boards is business as usual in any change of the presidency. If this wasn’t the Trump administration, nobody would have noticed.

(Disclaimer: I was appointed to the now defunct or renamed Department of Transportation Advisory Committee (DTAC) in California, and sat on several grant review panels at the U.S. EPA.)


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