Sensationalism cells.

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Republicans' 'Secret Science' Bill Isn't What You Think

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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Republicans, while still pretend-raging at the "duplicity" revealed by Jonathan Gruber, are preparing for a House vote tomorrow on the Secret Science Reform Act, which aims to do one thing while purporting to do something else entirely. Congress may not be productive, but at least it has a sense of humor.

The bill would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from issuing regulations "based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible" -- that's the "secret science." Rules must reflect information that is available "in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results."

"The EPA's regulatory process is both hidden and flawed," Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said in a news release this summer. "If the EPA has nothing to hide, and if their data really justifies their regulations, why not make the information public?"

Why not indeed? For starters, because that disclosure is often illegal. The EPA uses all kinds of data it can't release, as Andrew Rosenberg wrote today in Roll Call, including "private medical data, trade secrets and industry data."

Some of the best real-world public health research, which relies on patient data like hospital admissions, would be excluded from consideration because personal data could not, and should not, be made public. Demanding public release of full raw data the agency cannot legally disclose is simply a way to accuse the agency of hiding something when it has nothing to hide.

The bill's requirements are also incredibly expensive. The Congressional Budget Office reported that meeting them would cost between $10,000 and $30,000 for each scientific study used by the agency.

And in an average year, the EPA relies on about 50,000 studies. The budget office estimates that this bill would lead the EPA to "cut the number of studies it relies on by about one-half."

The result, according to the Barack Obama administration, would be fewer rules, especially those that depend on data the EPA is legally prevented from disclosing. It would also mean greater costs, more litigation and rules based on fewer studies. It would, in other words, weaken the agency. Of course it would. That's the purpose of the bill.

I agree with House Republicans about the importance of transparency. So I asked a spokeswoman for Representative David Schweikert, the bill's sponsor, for examples of outside groups that have tried replicating the results of studies on which EPA has based some its regulations, but were unable because of restrictions on that data. I made the same request of a spokeswoman for Smith. Neither provided any.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with Republicans trying to hamstring an agency whose mandate they don't like by proposing restrictions on the way it pursues that mandate. But pretending the goal is cracking down on "secret science," rather than stopping rules that most Americans support, is disingenuous.

But so what? Usually, that kind of duplicity passes without comment in Washington, a city where nobody has terribly high expectations for anyone else's likelihood of speaking plainly. Republicans' hyperventilated reaction to Gruber's statement pretends to raise the question of whether that's appropriate. The Secret Science bill shows that question itself was duplicitous.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net