POLITICS
12/20/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2013

Senators 'Deeply Concerned' Over Science Provision In Farm Bill

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WASHINGTON –- The way government agencies deal with science is under attack thanks to a provision tucked into the sweeping federal farm bill, 13 Democratic Senators argued in a letter sent Friday to Agriculture Committee leaders.

As The Huffington Post reported Thursday, the version of the farm bill passed by the House includes a provision called "Ensuring High Standards for Agency Use of Scientific Information." The measure would make agencies set new guidelines on how they deal with scientific studies, and would block agencies from issuing new rules until those guidelines are in place. It has a number of environmental and public health groups concerned -- they say the provision is vague and broad, and would gum up agency work on regulations and make it easier for interest groups to file suit if they don't like an agency's scientific finding.

The provision was not in the version that the Senate passed, and a Senate aide told HuffPost that most senators were not aware it was in the House version until recently.

The senators said in the letter that they are "deeply concerned" that the provision "will harm science-based decision-making at all federal agencies and undermine protections for public health, safety and the environment." They're calling on their representatives in the bill negotiations to keep the provision out of the final deal.

Democratic Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Kristen Gillibrand (N.Y.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.) signed the letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). Stabenow and Cochran are representing the Senate in the conference committee.

The provision is based on the "Sound Science Act" that Rep. Steven Fincher (R-Tenn.) introduced earlier this year. The provision's Senate critics point out that language in the bill includes wording that might make it impossible for agencies to do research in a timely fashion, and to conduct research in one-time, emergency situations like the studies agencies did during BP's major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The Senators write:

Contrary to its name, the 'Sound Science Act' would make it nearly impossible for all federal agencies, including independent ones, to use science effectively to inform their decisions and protect public health, safety, and the environment. It would also effectively freeze agencies’ decision-making processes on January 1, 2014. The provision has received no hearings in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Such a dramatic change to the use of science across the entire federal government demands greater scrutiny than it has received before becoming law.

The 'Sound Science Act' requires agencies to base policy decisions on 'well established' scientific processes, but does not provide a definition for what science would be acceptable. This has the potential to eliminate the use of new, cutting edge and innovative science in agencies’ decision-making and to hinder their ability to keep up with scientific and technical advances in their jurisdictions. By changing the scientific standard for agencies, the provision also opens the door for more legal challenges to agencies’ actions by claiming that the science used for a decision was insufficiently 'well established.'

Fincher, the sponsor of the measure in the House, told HuffPost via email on Friday that he thinks the provision will help promote better science at the agencies, and it makes sense to include it in the farm bill. "The legislation requires appropriate peer review, the disclosure of scientific studies used in making decisions, and an opportunity for stakeholder input," said Fincher. "Many of the regulations developed by these agencies directly impact farmers, which makes the Farm Bill the perfect home for the Sound Science Act."

"Many of the regulations developed by the federal agencies are well-intentioned, yet recently there have been reports that federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), may be moving well beyond hard science in the rule-making process, which would have significant negative impacts on a wide range of industries," said Fincher.

An aide to the House Agriculture Committee said Thursday that the farm bill conferees are still making "progress" on a conference report, and that the science provision "is one of the issues that's being discussed and reconciled."

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