SENATORS CALL ON GOVERNMENT WATCHDOG TO EXAMINE INDEPENDENCE OF EPA ADVISORY COMMITTEES

Administrator Pruitt’s actions raise questions as to whether the EPA is following its procedures for protecting advisory committees from industry influence

Washington, D.C. – Today, 10 Senators requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s federal watchdog agency, examine whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the leadership of Administrator Scott Pruitt is protecting the independence and neutrality of its federal advisory committees.  The EPA is home to 23 such committees, which advise the agency on environmental science, public health, safety, and other subjects central to the EPA’s work.  Federal law requires the committees to remain balanced in the viewpoints they represent and functions they perform.  Recent actions by Administrator Pruitt have raised concerns that he intends to stack these committees with polluter-friendly advocates or render them ineffective by establishing new, industry-friendly panels of his own making to guide EPA policy. 

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tom Carper (D-DE), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Gary Peters (D-MI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) signed on to the request to GAO.

It was recently reported that the EPA will not renew the terms of dozens of scientists on one of its committees, the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), even though many of them will have served half as long as typical appointees.  No cause was given for their dismissal.  EPA’s notice to the scientists triggered resignations and the cancelation of five of BOSC’s subcommittee hearings scheduled for the fall due to lack of membership.  “It effectively wipes out the BOSC and leaves it free for a complete reappointment,” BOSC Executive Chairwoman Deborah Swackhamer told the Washington Post.  The New York Times reported last week that EPA political staff subsequently pressured Dr. Swackhamer to change her testimony before Congress about the termination of these scientists. 

Pruitt has also begun a process of establishing panels to carry out “at-length evaluation of U.S. climate science” using a “back-and-forth critique” by experts selected by Pruitt’s EPA.  The so-called “red team, blue team” exercises the panels will carry out follow the administration’s suggestion that it supports going around the long-established peer-review process for rigorously evaluating science.  The EPA’s federal advisory committees have traditionally carried out that function. 

These actions fall into a broader pattern of Administrator Pruitt pursuing the interests of polluting industry at the expense of the EPA’s mission of protecting the environment and Americans’ health and safety.  According to an analysis by the New York Times, Pruitt has rolled back, delayed, or otherwise hampered 30 environmental rules.  He also played a leading role in the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. 

As the GAO has written in the past, federal advisory committees “play an important role in shaping public policy by providing advice on a wide array of issues, such as stem cell research, drinking water standards, space exploration, drug approvals, and federal land management.”  The EPA has addressed previous GAO recommendations (published here and here) and put in place procedures to guard against conflicts of interest among members of its advisory committees.  In their letter, the Senators ask the GAO to look into how those procedures are being followed by the Trump Administration’s EPA, specifically:

  • The extent to which EPA has policies and procedures for nominating and selecting federal advisory committee members to help ensure the independence and balance of committees.
  • The extent to which EPA has policies and procedures to help ensure federal advisory Committees’ independence from the agency.
  • How EPA’s policies and procedures for federal advisory committees compare to other agencies.
  • The extent to which EPA has followed its policies and procedures for recent federal advisory committees.
  • How the current composition of EPA’s federal advisory committees compare to the composition of past committees.
  • A comparison of how nominations and re-appointments to EPA’s federal advisory committees have been handled following Presidential transitions. 

Full text of the Senators’ request to the GAO is below.  A PDF copy is available here.

July 6, 2017 

The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro

Comptroller General of the United States

U.S. Government Accountability Office

441 G Street, NW

Washington, DC 20548

Dear Mr. Dodaro:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently has 23 federal advisory committees that provide advice to the EPA administrator and other senior leaders on a range of environmental and health issues. These committees consist of hundreds of members who bring a variety of skills and expertise and can include scientists, economists, public health officials, businesses, and representatives of all levels of government.

As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported, federal advisory committees have been called the “fifth arm of government” because of the significant role they play in advising federal agencies, Congress, and the president on important national issues.  To be effective, these advisory committees must be—and, just as importantly, be perceived as being—independent and balanced. Specifically, individual committee members who provide advice to the government must be free from significant conflicts of interest—that is, they must be “independent.” In addition, while it may be desirable to include experts on committees who have particular viewpoints, federal law requires each committee, as a whole, to be balanced in terms of the points of view and the functions to be performed. Some appointments to scientific and technical advisory committees have generated controversy because of the perception by some scientists and others that these appointments were based on ideology rather than expertise or were weighted to favor one group of stakeholders over others.

GAO last conducted a comprehensive review of EPA’s process for selecting federal advisory committee members in 2001.  At that time, GAO made several recommendations, that EPA implemented, to better ensure that membership for one of its advisory committees—the Science Advisory Board—is independent and balanced. We now request that GAO build on this past work and evaluate EPA’s process for ensuring that all of its federal advisory committees are independent and balanced and how this compares to other federal agencies’ processes.

Specifically, we request that GAO undertake a review that addresses the following:

  • The extent to which EPA has policies and procedures for nominating and selecting federal advisory committee members to help ensure the independence and balance of committees.
  • The extent to which EPA has policies and procedures to help ensure federal advisory Committees’ independence from the agency.
  • How EPA’s policies and procedures for federal advisory committees compare to other agencies.
  • The extent to which EPA has followed its policies and procedures for recent federal advisory committees.
  • How the current composition of EPA’s federal advisory committees compare to the composition of past committees.
  • A comparison of how nominations and re-appointments to EPA’s federal advisory committees have been handled following Presidential transitions. 

Please contact Emily Enderle in Senator Whitehouse’s office at (202) 224-2921 and Michal Freedhoff on the staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at (202) 224-8832 to discuss in detail the specific scope of work and timelines for completing this request.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.