Congressional oversight of executive branch agencies is a key element of the checks and balances that prevent accumulation of too much power, as well as abuse of that power, in any one part of government. A review of two recent congressional oversight endeavors now being stymied by the Obama Administration underscores the often-overlooked importance of the oversight process. In both cases, lives are at stake.
The first instance relates to a formal request from House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) regarding a particularly egregious waste of taxpayer dollars at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH-funded research helps us live longer and healthier lives. Although NIH is well-funded, its resources are finite. Funding wasteful projects diverts money from important life-saving research.
In a March 3, 2016 letter to Linda Birnbaum, director of the NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program, Chairman Chaffetz requested documents and communications related to NIEHS funding of research and possible advocacy on bisphenol A, better known as BPA.
The Food and Drug Administration has direct regulatory authority over BPA's use as a chemical component present in polycarbonate plastic used in the manufacture of certain beverage containers and most food can liners.
Fifty years of findings say BPA is safe
The FDA's website explains that the agency "acknowledges the interest that many consumers have in BPA," and "has performed extensive research and reviewed hundreds of studies about BPA's safety," which has led to the conclusion that "current approved uses of BPA in food containers and packaging are safe."
Yet despite nearly 50 years of findings that BPA is safe, the agency and companies that use BPA continue to come under fire from environmental groups and other critics. Much of the ammunition for those complaints is coming from academic research studies on BPA that attempt to undermine the FDA through grants funded by the NIEHS, FDA's sister agency at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The NIH-funded studies help perpetuate what New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin calls the "single-study syndrome," which he says is "the habit of the more aggressive camps of advocates surrounding hot issues (e.g., climate, chemical exposure, fracking) to latch onto and push studies supporting an agenda, no matter how tenuous — or dubious — the research might be."
Between 2000 and 2014, $172.7 million in research grants were given to scientists to try to show BPA's effect on humans, particularly as an endocrine disruptor. More than 70% of the total funding, or $121,483,781, was provided between 2010 and 2014, much of it going to scientists already known to have a strong bias against BPA. In a show of astounding hubris, many of these same scientists who are making a living from Dr. Birnbaum's publicly-funded junk science trough, wrote to then-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to complain that FDA's globally recognized review of BPA was "flawed scientifically."
In addition to the FDA's findings that BPA is safe as currently used, the European Food Safety Authority has found that "the level of BPA that consumers of all ages are exposed to is well below the estimated level of safe exposure."
What makes Chairman Chaffetz's inquiry so cutting is his concern that NIEHS is handing out more than $120 million in research grants that are being used in an attempt to undermine and reverse the statutorily-authorized regulatory work and conclusive scientific findings of another taxpayer-funded agency, the FDA.
To date, NIEHS has ignored the Chairman's March 17 deadline to produce information for the committee's consideration as part of its oversight obligation.
Oversight of NIH is long overdue; Dr. Birnbaum is no stranger to this type of wasteful research. I recently criticized Dr. Birnbaum's National Toxicology Program for wasting $25 million for research which found that male rats exposed to cell phones for nine hours a day had a slight increase in two types of rare brain cancers.
FDA's new regulations on e-cigarettes
The Obama Administration is also thumbing its nose at a similar oversight inquiry from Senator Ron Johnson, Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Rep. Chaffetz's oversight counterpart in the Senate.
As part of his committee's examination on the regulatory burdens that federal agencies place on small businesses, Chairman Johnson has written numerous letters to FDA commissioner Dr. Robert Califf, seeking to understand the consequences that the agency's new regulations on e-cigarettes may have on small businesses and the public's health.
In a May 17 letter, Senator Johnson expressed his concern that "the FDA's attempt to improve the public's health by scrutinizing the e-cigarette industry could ultimately result in negative unintended health consequences." In particular, he wrote that "the costly impact the rule will have on e-cigarette manufacturers will stifle innovation and make it harder for e-cigarette companies to continue to offer products that serve as an alternative to smoking. It is possible that without a cost-effective alternative, some consumers will resort to traditional cigarettes."
True to form, the administration's late reply was non-responsive to the Senator's requests to provide relevant information by the May 31 deadline, as well as a June 6 follow-up. In a third letter, Senator Johnson sets 5PM July 29 as a final deadline for a substantive reply. It seems the agency is unwilling or unable to justify what will be a de-facto ban on life-saving alternatives to smoking.
While different Obama Administration agencies continue to ignore oversight inquires on important public health issues from chairmen of both the House and Senate oversight committees, the administration undermines not only the proper functioning of checks and balances, but the public health itself.
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Mr. Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division.