Former agency heads and environmentalists are blasting a new executive order issued late Friday evening as a stealthy means to remove scientific oversight from agency rulemaking.
Previous heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Interior Department say President Trump’s directive last week for all agencies to cut at least a third of their advisory committees by September would weaken the science-based regulations process that the administration has pushed back against since Trump took office.
“The decision is disappointing to anyone who cares about evidence-based policy making, scientific review or the truth,” said Carol Browner, the sole EPA administrator under former President Clinton, in an email to The Hill on Monday.
“Engaging a range of outside advisors has served EPA well,” she said. “While probably predictable, the decision is no less alarming. The American people expect more from agencies, especially those charged with protecting our health, like the EPA.”
Trump’s executive order directs all federal agencies to cut by at least one-third the number of boards and advisory committees that weigh in on government regulations and other agency decisions. That means 462 committees are potentially on the chopping block when excluding agencies that are mandated by law.
At EPA and Interior, advisory committees provide scientific and technical expertise from people who are considered to be at the top of their field.
“The things you are worried about are that complex decisions deserve to have the best experts and scientists convening,” said Gina McCarthy, EPA chief under former President Obama, in a phone interview Monday. “While the agencies have terrific people, they don’t necessarily have the breadth of expertise they need.”
She said Trump’s move “is just another way of diminishing the need for the federal government to consider science and expert opinions on issues most critical to the American public.”
“This unprecedented attack on science-based regulations designed to protect the environment and public health represents the gravest threat to the effectiveness of the EPA — and to the federal government’s overall ability to do the same — in the nation’s history,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who was EPA chief under President George W. Bush, at a congressional hearing last week shortly before Trump’s executive order.
Elizabeth Klein, a former associate deputy secretary at Interior during the Obama administration, pointed to Interior’s resource advisory committees as a way to bring in local voices, as well as industry leaders, to discuss how best to manage public lands.
She said the committees ensure the department is “not just asking its most favorite stakeholders what they should do.” The whole point of having committees, she added is to create “a transparent way to get this kind of input.”
“Particularly from this administration that says it wants to put decisionmaking back out away from Washington, getting rid of advisory committees that are made up of those folks is contrary to what they want to do,” Klein said.
Trump’s executive order says agency chiefs can consider the following factors when determining which advisory boards to terminate: operations costs, inactive and completed committees, and those where the subject matter has "become obsolete."
Members of the scientific community who have criticized what they call the administration’s assault on science since Trump was inaugurated took issue with the premise of the new executive order.
“It’s interesting that this order comes now, after the administration spent two years undercutting and neglecting the advisory network that it’s had at its disposal,” said Genna Reed, lead science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “And now they are trying to use that neglect as a data point for a justification to remove these advisory boards for not being useful.”
The Trump administration in recent years has shuffled career scientists out of their positions, put limits on which science experts are qualified to sit on advisory boards and created a special White House panel that’s designed in part to counter the science linking climate change to national security threats.
The tightening of the reins has led to public outcries by scientists and a landslide of agency resignations.
In 2017, the head of EPA’s environmental justice committee resigned after the White House proposed to completely defund the committee’s efforts to protect minority populations from pollution. The official had been at the agency for 24 years.
The following year at the Interior Department, a muzzling of scientific voices by now-former Secretary Ryan Zinke was cited as the cause for the resignation of almost an entire advisory board whose aim was to help the National Park Service care for heritage sites.
EPA political appointees are also weighing a rule that would limit the use of certain studies if they do not make their underlying data public. The agency argues it will make their decisions more transparent, but critics say it will keep the agency from considering many valuable studies as they write future regulations.
A White House spokesperson said the whittling down of committees was necessary since a review had not taken place since the Clinton administration.
“The President believes it is time to once more review and eliminate ones that are not relevant and providing valuable services so that we are good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” the spokesperson said in an email to The Hill.
Spokesmen for the EPA and Interior both said the order was needed to clean out committees that have outlived their usefulness.
Browner disagreed with the administration’s comparison to the Clinton years, saying Trump’s executive order follows years of attacks on scientists.
“While the directives are similar in language, there are key differences. First, Clinton issued his order within the first month of his presidency while Trump’s comes almost two and a half years into his administration. Second, and most important, Donald Trump has waged a years-long war on science-based policy making in his administration which makes the timing and intent of this [executive order] justifiably suspicious,” Browner said.
Critics, including the former leaders of the agencies in previous administrations, said the one-third number offered under Trump’s executive order seemed completely arbitrary.
“The notion of summarily cutting across every agency by a third — just looking at it I don’t understand where that number comes from or why he would choose that number. It seems quite arbitrary to me to just pick that and just get rid of what might otherwise be a very useful committee,” Klein said. “It clearly looks like an attempt to micromanage what federal agencies are doing.”
Other experts pushed back on the notion that cutting the committees would save taxpayer dollars.
The administration has routinely pushed to slash funding across the board at various agencies. In its most recent budget proposal, the White House suggested cutting funds to the Interior and EPA by 14 and 31 percent, respectively.
“It is not an adequate reflection of the actual state of affairs,” Reed said. “The cost of these committees is incredibly minor when you consider the incredible value that they offer to government agencies in supporting really tough policy issues and also in incorporating public input and giving the public access to these deliberations that occur on issues that affect their day to day lives.”
Chris Zarba, former government coordinator of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board — a group of top scientists that advise the agency’s processes — agreed the money saved would likely be minimal.
“The obvious upfront benefit or impact is that this administration will now get to pick everyone on any upcoming review and will not have to deal with any legacy members,” he said.
The Science Advisory Board is required by law and therefore unlikely to be on the chopping block, but the board has a number of standing committees that experts say could be disbanded. Those who serve on them are paid only when they do work, something Zarba said amounted to about $50 an hour.
If such committees are disbanded, it will slow down the process of giving advice to the administration, Zarba said.
McCarthy said Trump’s move will be disruptive to science across various agencies.
“It’s just one more nail in the coffin on science in this administration,” she said. “It will just be one further step backwards.