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Political Scene

The Rocket Docket: Legislating Science Out of Public Policy
Steven Quane

During my first six months inside the Washington, D.C., beltway, I have heard members of Congress say countless times “I love science” or “we must use the best scientific information available in making our laws.” Rhetorically, little resistance exists for policy-makers to use science fairly and justly in creating the laws of the land. Procedurally, however, that is certainly not the case. I have noticed several tactics to manipulate or limit the influence of science in the public policy process.

The Office of the President, for example, has received public criticism for editing the content of scientific reports from executive branch agencies (see Geotimes, August 2005 and July 2004). Mostly, the administration is not changing or omitting data, but rather changing report phraseology, thus rendering results in a different light than cast by the original report.

The Bush administration has also been criticized for not allowing publicly funded agency scientists to openly convey their scientific results to the public. Recently, for example, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, stated that administration officials are restricting with whom he can talk and what he can say about the causes of human-induced global climate change. In his opinion, politicians are rewriting the science. But this is not the first time Hansen has been pressured by an administration. He claims that the Clinton administration wanted him to state that global warming was worse than his findings indicated.

Direct censoring of agency scientists is not the only way in which politicians have abused science in order to contort policy. One technique often used on Capitol Hill to manipulate scientific findings to a political end is to cherry-pick nuggets of scientific information to fit a predetermined, inflexible position. For example, a member of Congress might propose legislation that he or she claims is “based on sound science” and cite specific peer-reviewed scientific journal papers that indeed support the legislation. Often excluded from the discussion, however, are other and often more numerous collections of peer-reviewed journal papers with conclusions that do not necessarily support the proposed legislation.

On more than one occasion, the few scientific studies selected to support specific legislation have been in direct opposition to the scientific community’s overwhelming consensus on the topic. Instead of acknowledging the entire body of sound scientific findings on a particular topic and then making a policy decision, not surprisingly, many politicians’ love for science is conditional and shown only when it fits their position.

But, the most disturbing trend that I have observed in science policy-making is the procedural exclusion of science from the legislative process. Proposed legislation based on science is often especially contentious. The more controversial an issue, the more open, public debate there should be to make an informed policy decision.

The amount of debate on Capitol Hill has been decreasing, however, for a number of years. This trend is likely a direct result of the congressional schedule. According to The Washington Post, the average number of days the House of Representatives is in session during a calendar year has decreased from 323 in the 1960s and 1970s, to 278 in the 1980s and 1990s, and is presently below 250. As a corollary, the number of committee and subcommittee hearings, where Congress conducts much of the debate on, and amendment of, legislation has decreased from more than 5,000 to approximately 2,000 in the same time period.

In the current system, members of Congress seemingly do not have time or perhaps the desire to be in Washington. Adequate debate on contentious legislation seems to have been replaced by three-day workweeks while Congress is in session and sometimes by three-week-long district work periods — a trend certainly propagated by advances in time- and cost-efficient airline travel.

As a congressional staffer, I must admit that the recesses serve as much anticipated respites from the often harried, over-packed schedules of dwindling in-session days. However, as a citizen and member of the scientific community, I find that the current congressional schedule needs some rethinking.

In my mind, the greatest danger of the modern congressional schedule is that the amount of deliberation is decreasing, but the amount of legislation and its impact on society is not. Therefore, many bills are put on what my boss, Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), contemptuously refers to as a “rocket docket.” On this expedited track, open debate and amendment of legislation is severely limited.

Recently, the most glaring example of this form of governing is H.R. 3824, the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005. The original Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 and still ranks as the most powerful law in the world for protecting plants and animals and rescuing them from near extinction. Most will agree that after more than 30 years, the law is still greatly effective, but is due for an update. H.R. 3824 was intended to be one such update.

Instead of providing adequate debate and amendment on this 88-page controversial piece of legislation, however, the whole process, from introduction to passage, took only 10 calendar days — that’s seven legislative days in the House. In those seven days, H.R. 3824 had a committee hearing and markup, and then went to the House floor.

Some might say that this is Congress doing its best and most efficient work. I strongly disagree. Such speedy work is irresponsible governing that effectively silences all voices concerned with the legislation, especially those of scientists.

As an example, Craig Manson, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior, testified at a hearing just three days after the bill was introduced. He opened by saying “let me note that because the bill was introduced just days ago…we have not had sufficient time to fully analyze the legislation or to develop a formal administration position on the bill. After we have had more time to review the bill, we would be happy to more fully discuss its provisions with the Committee.” This explanation might be acceptable if the hearing were the first of many on H.R. 3824; however, it was the only one.

The “rocket docket” was not slowed, however, and the bill came to the floor just days later under a rule that allowed for only two amendments and limited general debate to 90 minutes. Needless to say, H.R. 3824 passed, despite the lack of input from the major stakeholders on the issue, including the scientific community.

Often, Udall, a strong proponent of fair debate on the issues, especially those involving science, regales us and constituent groups alike with stories of floor procedures in the 1960s and 1970s, when his father Stewart and Uncle Morris were in Congress. During those times, the leadership was proud to say that it would not bring a piece of legislation to the House floor under anything but an open rule, allowing for virtually unlimited debate and amendment. How times have changed!

H.R. 3824 now awaits action from the United States Senate, and hopefully, for the scientific community this time, our colleagues across Capitol Hill live up to their moniker as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Quane is the William L. Fisher 2005-2006 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies. He is working in the office of Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) this year.

"Heat on U.S. climate policy," Geotimes, August 2005
"Suppressing Science in Policy: Sharing Responsibility," Geotimes, Political Scene, July 2004

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