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Science Provision Buried In House Farm Bill Could Gum Up Regulatory Work, Critics Say

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Some senators and environmental advocates are concerned that a provision buried in the House's version of the farm bill changing the way agencies deal with science might make it into a conference bill. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) | Scott Olson via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Some senators and environmental and public health groups are concerned that a little-noticed provision in the House's version of the farm bill, which would change the way federal agencies deal with science, might make it into the final version.

The provision, on page 560 of the 609-page bill, is titled "Ensuring High Standards for Agency Use of Scientific Information." While that may sound like a good thing on its surface, the provision is worded in such a way that has advocates in the environmental and scientific community alarmed. Among other things, the measure would require agencies to have new "procedures in place to make policy decisions only on the basis of the best reasonably obtainable scientific, technical, economic, and other evidence and information concerning the need for, consequences of, and alternatives to the decision." The bill would also stop all government agencies from doing regulatory work as of Jan. 1, 2014, until those new guidelines are in place.

Critics inside and outside the Senate say the provision's call for "ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of scientific information relied upon by such agency" is both broad and vague, and is designed to gum up regulatory work at the federal agencies. While it would have the most immediate impact at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, it's nonspecific enough that it could affect any part of the government that deals with science.

“The farm bill was already used to slash food assistance programs for millions of Americans, and now it’s being used to undermine scientists," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "These provisions aren't guidelines for scientists, they're barriers against discovery that block good people from doing their best work and protecting public health and the environment.“

Amit Narang, the regulatory policy advocate for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said the measure could leave the federal agencies open to lawsuits from outside groups that don't think that the agency has adequately considered alternatives. "The bill's language might sound like it's just trying to verify that the agencies are using the best available science, but the practical impact is very different," he said. "The bill would allow industry to challenge agencies based on these new criteria, and in turn make agencies have to delay regulations."

"You could call this the 'Stop Government In Its Tracks' provision," said Celia Wexler, the senior Washington representative with the Union of Concerned Scientists' scientific integrity initiative. "It would make it impossible for agencies that we depend on to protect public health and safety, worker safety, the environment, from doing their jobs."

The measure covers any policy or regulatory decision made at agencies, including "the listing, labeling, or other identification of a substance, product, or activity as hazardous or creating risk to human health, safety, or the environment," as well as agency guidance. The wording also calls for agencies to give the "greatest weight" to information based on experimental, empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible data "developed in accordance with well-established scientific processes," which critics say would make it harder to use predictive modeling or new innovations.

The provision is similar to a bill that Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) introduced earlier this year. In introducing the bill, Fincher specifically cited work at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on antibacterial soaps and the use of antibiotics in farm animals that he argued "may be moving well beyond hard-science in the rule making process, which would have significant negative impacts on a wide range of industries."

"Bottom line, the U.S. economy is in a fragile state, any hurdle, fee, or foreign advantage, will cost the U.S. economy valuable jobs," Fincher said. "Higher costs to comply with regulations undermine businesses ability to compete globally, while causing consumers to pay more for products.

The version of the farm bill that the Senate passed in June did not include this provision. A Senate Democratic aide told The Huffington Post that many senators did not realize that the provision was included in the House's version until it was brought to their attention recently.

The House and Senate conferees and their staff are still working on a conference report. "The hope is to have a framework in place that can be finalized over the holiday and ready to present to the conferees in early January," said a Democratic aide to the House agriculture committee.

Another committee aide said that the conferees are still making "progress," and that the science provision "is one of the issues that's being discussed and reconciled."

The provision's critics are hoping that it will be left on the bargaining room floor. "It's really an indication of kind of anti-regulatory forces trying to use the farm bill to get their pet legislation through behind closed doors and away from the view of the public," said Narang, of Public Citizen. "This has very little to do with the farm bill and everything to do with stopping public health and safety regulations."

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