Bush Would Add Review Layer for Rules
Industry Cheers Science Peer-Appraisal Plan; Critics Say It Will Discourage Regulation

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 30, 2003; Page A10

The Bush administration proposed yesterday broad new standards for federal regulatory agencies that would require them to seek independent appraisals of the scientific basis for many new rules before issuing them.

The announcement by the Office of Management and Budget was cheered by groups linked to industry but was questioned by advocates who warned that the proposal would paralyze new regulations and stymie enforcement.

All regulatory agencies would be covered by the proposed executive order, but the Department of Agriculture and the Army Corps of Engineers would be among those especially affected, said John Graham, administrator of the OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

The proposal would require agencies to systematically seek outside opinions when evaluating scientific findings or disagreements, a process called peer review. Although such independent appraisals are widely respected in science, critics said the process could quickly get murky when applied to such issues as global warming, pesticide use and ergonomic safety, in which the risks and benefits of regulations would be complex, expensive and politically charged.

Graham said that the measure would keep politics out of the regulatory process, but critics countered that the proposal could easily turn into a bonanza for Big Business.

"You have to be suspicious," said Lisa Heinzerling, a professor of law at Georgetown University who studies health and environmental policy. "John Graham is the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and he has been hostile to health and environmental regulations. This would be another weapon for the administration and its corporate allies to use against protective regulation."

But Jim Tozzi, a former OMB manager in the Nixon and Reagan administrations and now a member of the board of advisers of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, said the measure would improve the quality of the science used to justify regulations and would provide companies facing regulation a way to question incorrect data.

"What this document does is put additional teeth in what is meant by peer review," said Tozzi, whose group works closely with trade associations and private companies. He suggested that environmental regulations and dietary guidelines might be reevaluated under the new standard.

According to the proposal, which is expected to go into effect in February, if a regulation costs private firms more than $100 million a year and companies challenge the quality of the science behind it, regulators must convene a panel of experts from outside the agency to reevaluate the science.

Graham said most of the scientists doing reviews would likely be drawn from universities. While the additional hurdle would increase the time required to adopt a regulation, he said there would be long-term benefits for regulators, industry and the nation.

"It will take agencies some time to do peer review, but in the long run this will make their rules more competent and credible and reduce their vulnerability to political and legal attack," Graham said. "Rules based on peer review will be more durable than those that rely on the in-house expertise of the agency."

Graham's bulletin warned that although agencies are often wary of potential conflicts of interest in the opinions of industry scientists, they often do not pay enough attention to similar conflicts among scientists with ties to the agency. By separating those who pass the rules from those who analyze the science, the process will be strengthened, he said.

A number of scientists, public interest groups and Democrats have charged that the Bush administration is taking the teeth out of regulatory agencies, replacing scientists critical of industry with those sympathetic to corporate and ideological interests.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said yesterday that the Bush administration has manipulated scientific committees to advance political and ideological goals. "Based on their track record, I'm concerned that the policy they are proposing today will open the door to even more abuse," he said in an e-mail.

Graham dismissed the idea. "In fact, if the administration has more confidence in the peer review process, it will be less likely they will seek to change outcomes through political mechanisms," he said.

Graham said agencies and the public would have several months to comment on the proposed new standards, giving the OMB time to refine and improve them.

The new standards are certain to increase the acrimony over complex scientific issues, on which experts can disagree about the meaning and quality of the data, critics said.

"Peer review could become a tool to say, 'When there is uncertainty, don't regulate -- you need dead babies before you can regulate,' " said Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a watchdog group. "Our fear is, in the worst-case scenario, important public protections dealing with the environment, health, safety and civil rights regulations get stopped in their tracks because [peer review] becomes a hurdle you cannot get over."

2003 The Washington Post Company