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A conversation with public health expert Lynn Goldman, a former assistant administrator at the US Environmental Protection Agency
February 10, 2017|
WIKIMEDIA, COOLCAESERPresident Donald Trump signed an executive order on January 30, requiring that federal agencies repeal two regulations for every new one they propose. In a statement, Rick Pollack, chief executive officer of the American Hospital Association, praised the order as a step toward removing “red tape” that can drive up health care costs. Meanwhile, Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, had a decidedly less optimistic reaction. “People are going to die if you start eliminating safety standards,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
Lynn Goldman, dean of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and a former assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, spoke with The Scientist about the executive order, and the impact it may have on federal agencies including the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The Scientist: What do you think was President Trump’s goal in issuing this order?
Lynn Goldman: I think his intent is to follow through on a commitment made in the campaign to reduce regulation, and I believe there was then a verbal commitment that, for every regulation issued, two would be eliminated. And, overall, there are many supporters of the president who sense the importance of regulations, but think we simply have too many of them. They’ve painted the entire regulatory system with a broad brush: that this is bad for us and bad for the economy, and so it’d be better to have fewer regulations and eliminate more of them.
TS: Are they right?
LG: Whether or not they are, this [executive order] is not necessarily going to achieve the desired result. If the desired result is to get rid of regulations that don’t make sense or cost the industry money, this isn’t going to achieve that.
TS: Why not?
LG: I do not think the drafting of this executive order reflects a fully informed view of what regulations do in our economy. They [members of the Trump administration] probably weren’t thinking about regulations such as, for example, the requirement that all refrigerators have latches that can be opened from the inside so that young child who climbs in won’t suffocate in one. It’s a rare but significant cause of death in young children. I really doubt they were thinking about that regulation.
My guess is they were thinking about regulations around financial reporting requirements, et cetera. But some of these regulations actually allow the industry to do things. Whenever the pesticide industry petitions to FDA [to allow] new tolerances, that’s regulation. If you want to use a pesticide on corn and not just soybeans, you need an EPA regulation to be issued. There’s no law that the EPA must issue these regulations, but it’s part of keeping the industry going—you need new tolerances to be established. A lot of regulations are needed to keep the economy moving forward so people can do business.
And from a standpoint of public health, the thing that is very alarming about this executive order is the complete disregard for public health and the environment.
TS: Is this the first time the federal government has tried to eliminate regulations?
LG: This actually all started under [former President] Carter, a Democrat. And successive White Houses have focused on the analysis of the cost of regulations, but also the analysis of the benefits—weighing benefits and costs. Is it worth removing air pollution in terms of the number of lives it’s going to save, or are the costs so ridiculous that you’re asking the industry to pay too much to just save a few lives. Also, the focus has always been on very, very large regulations called “major regulations,” which different White Houses have defined in different ways.
This [executive order] is a completely novel approach. There’s no consideration of benefits at all, only costs, and no consideration of whether a regulation [to be eliminated] is a major regulation. There’s also a lack of definition in the executive order around what they really mean by “cost.” Going back to the example with the refrigerator doors that cannot be opened by toddlers from the inside, the number of lives saved would not be a consideration if [the Trump administration] were looking at that regulation today—only how much does it cost them. Would the government actually be indifferent to the number of toddler lives that would be saved by that regulation? According to this executive order, apparently so.
TS: You used to work at the EPA. Were you still at the agency now, what would you be doing with respect to this executive order? Would it change how you and your colleagues regulate?
LG: This is the first administration that has implementing this kind of thing. So much about this executive order is so vague that, if I were at the agency right now, I wouldn’t know what to do. In the past, executive orders have been far more detailed, had a lot more definitions and information. I suppose I would be looking at what the law requires me to do and then I would be trying to understand how, within the executive order, I can still follow the law. Because when you’re at a regulatory agency your job is to implement the law. I would have my legal advisors very meticulously going through each and every mandate that has been provided by congress and figuring out—OK, given this legal legislative requirement, how do I do it and follow this executive order at the same time? I would try to use my resources as efficiently as possible, and I’d be watching and waiting for further guidance.
TS: Any idea what the feeling might be at the EPA or other federal agencies right now, given the executive order’s vague instructions?
LG: I’m sure there’s a lot of confusion right now, and people trying to suss out what’s changing. Especially at the EPA, there’s very little slack. The agency has been cut and cut repeatedly—to the bone—and what you really have is a lot of competing mandates and requirements on the people who work there. It’s a lot about managing your workload so you meet the deadlines of Congress and still do the policy right.