Dems fear farm bill’s Sound Science Act

Thirteen Senate Democrats are raising alarm about a little-noticed provision in the farm bill they say could suppress critical scientific research.

In a letter to the heads of the Agriculture Committee, the lawmakers claimed that the Sound Science Act buried in the House’s version of the farm bill would prevent scientists from using new tools and technology and expose them to new lawsuits.

“Contrary to its name, the ‘Sound Science Act’ would make it nearly impossible for all federal agencies, including independent ones, to use science effectively to inform their decisions and protect public health, safety, and the environment,” they wrote. “Such a dramatic change to the use of science across the entire federal government demands greater scrutiny than it has received before becoming law.”

The measure requires federal agencies to use “well-established” scientific processes, but the lawmakers worried it could be interpreted to prevent scientists from using innovative new methods. The provision could bar scientists from researching one-time events, they noted, such as studies about the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The letter was sent to Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the panel’s top Republican.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) signed on to Fridays’ letter.

The lawmakers’ concern followed increased pressure on the provision from consumer interest groups who share the Democrats’ concern.

On Thursday, Center for Progressive Reform scholar Wendy Wagner, who teaches law at the University of Texas, wrote that the measure is “decidedly not in the public interest.” 

“Lawyers call these types of vague, yet mandatory provisions 'attachment points', because high stakes players can latch onto them and use them to bring a seemingly endless stream of legal challenges against the agency,” she added.

Negotiators from the House and Senate are hammering out a final version of the farm bill and have expressed a desire to finish work in early 2014.