The Lincoln Plawg

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, August 16, 2004

The Data Quality Act, and actual journalism

Credit where it's due: WaPo editors swallowed hard, and today fronted a 4,500 word piece on government statistics by Rick Weiss.

Part of the Iraqi WMD (August 12) hair-shirt? Let's not go there - but obey Margaret Thatcher's famous injunction [1] and Rejoice!

What, you may ask, is the Data Quality Act?

Weiss, in an act of total bastardy quite out of keeping with the usefulness of the rest of the piece, does not tell us. Half an hour's grubbing around with Google and THOMAS leads me to the conclusion that what we are talking about is 515 of HR 5658, the Treasury appropriations bill, which was passed into law as PL 106-554 by HR 4577.

Blink, and you'd miss it: no cross-heading at all, still less one saying Data Quality Act. Nor is the title used in the Guidelines (67 FR 8452 (PDF)) issued by the OMB in pursuance to 515.

And, reading the text of 515, you'd assume that it was of interest to pen-pushers only. The opening paragraph reads:
The Director of the Office of Management and Budget shall...issue guidelines under sections 3504(d)(1) and 3516 of title 44, United States Code, that provide policy and procedural guidance to Federal agencies for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies in fulfilment of...the Paperwork Reduction Act.

Even C-SPAN mavens are dozing off.

Weiss fleshes out the bare bones. What 515 has done is to allow various companies to petition the government to challenge the scientific findings of government agencies with a view of getting regulations amended in the petitioners' favour.

It's a good story - whoever tipped Weiss off, there's obviously a lot of work gone into the piece (two researchers get end-credits), plus the Ripley's factor - what other laws we don't know about are there?

(Oversold in the yellow journalism hed - 'Data Quality' Law Is Nemesis Of Regulation - but then, I dare say a lot of staff are on vacation...)

For all the urgency of tone in the piece, the effect on government regulation seems to have been - well, limited:
Setting aside the many Data Quality Act petitions filed to correct narrow typographical or factual errors in government publications or Web sites, the analysis found 39 petitions with potentially broad economic, policy or regulatory impact. Of those, 32 were filed by regulated industries, business or trade organizations or their lobbyists.

But, Weiss goes on to point out,
Seven were filed by environmental or citizen groups. Some environmental groups are boycotting the act, adding to the imbalance in its use.

Now, bearing in mind the scope and depth of Federal regulation over all sorts of activities, and the shed-loads of information of all sorts that are produced in and around the regulatory process, my reaction is - only 39?

Weiss takes the example of atrazine: the National Enquirer element is that UCB scientist Tyrone Hayes found atrazine produced genetic mutations in African clawed frogs: hermaphrodite frogs [2]. The story Photoshops itself.

Unfortunately, the frog story is not as clean as it might be: Hayes went on to do more research, about which, says Weiss,
A special EPA science panel would eventually level stinging criticisms...for their poor design and sloppy implementation.

Cutting to it, a 515 petition was filed on the ground that the atrazine studies were irreproducible, and thus violated the section's quality standards. As this total layman reads it, the conflicts and methodological failures in the scientific results were genuine, not a lobbyist's invention.

The desperation of the other side comes out:
David Michaels, a professor of occupational and environmental health at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, said even a good study will appear "not reproducible" if enough bad studies are thrown into the mix.

"I call this 'manufacturing uncertainty,' and there is a whole industry to do this," said Michaels, who was the Energy Department's assistant secretary for environment, safety and health under Clinton. "They reanalyze the data to make [previously firm] conclusions disappear -- poof. Then they say one study says yes and the other says no, so we're nowhere."

Smoke and mirrors? Zeno's Paradox? If a study is flawed, or a reanalysis biased, throw it out. Sounds as if the guy thinks it's unfair, once he has a favourable study, for others to seek to falsify its conclusions. And I thought Bush was supposed to be the anti-scientist!

But - and this is my real interest in the story - how did 515 find itself in the bill in the first place?

Weiss names the guilty man: Jim J. Tozzi. Tozzi, he says,
wrote the Data Quality Act and arranged for its congressional passage after the 2000 elections.


Tozzi...tried repeatedly to get Congress to pass legislation that would make it easier to challenge the science used to underpin regulations. Then, unable to receive broad congressional support, he crafted legislative language himself and gave it to Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.)...

Emerson slipped the sentences into the 712-page Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act, which became the coming year's omnibus spending bill. Under pressure to wrap up the long-delayed budget, President Bill Clinton signed the huge bill on Dec. 21, 2000, nine days after the Supreme Court ruled that George W. Bush was to be the next president. It is not clear whether anyone in Congress other than Emerson and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) knew about the buried language.

"We sandwiched this in between Jerry Ford's library and something else," Tozzi said. "Was it something that did not have hearings? Yes. Is it something that keeps me awake at night? No..."

Now, as a transpondian kibitzer, I'm more than willing to confess the sketchiness of my knowledge of the Federal legislative process. But since appropriations is the essential work of the Congress, and each member has umpteen staff members at his disposal, I'm disposed to doubt Tozzi on only two of 535 knowing what 515 was for: it comes across as too Little Red Riding Hood not to have a great slavering wolf hidden inside! And the Appropriations Committee staffs and members will surely have taken an interest?

What effort did the Democratic leadership make towards getting 515 removed? At what stage in the process did it appear? Which legislators and staff members did Rep Emerson talk to about? Was no paperwork generated by anyone in support of it?

I'd ask for some more actual journalism on the matter: but I think Weiss has given us the Post's ration for the month.

  1. From memory, outside 10 Downing Street, following the recapture of South Georgia from the Argies in 1982.

  2. I was tipped off to the story listen to Al Franken today, in the excruciating segment he does with the Center for American Progress girl (this time it was). A sort of cross-talk routine from hell, recording at 78 rpm and replayed at 33. Franken went on and on about hermaphrodism being a valid lifestyle choice...

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