This obscure law can help correct misinformation in Trump's White House

This obscure law can help correct misinformation in Trump's White House
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Last week, an advocacy group, the Democracy Forward Foundation, sent a letter to the Department of the Treasury requesting a correction under the Information Quality Act. This seemingly obscure action could pave the way for greater use of another tool that could be useful for groups hoping to highlight distortions of facts by the Trump administration.

The Information Quality Act (IQA) was passed as a rider to an appropriations bill in 2000.  It, and the regulations implementing it, require agencies to disseminate only information that is objective and of high quality, and to set up a process where members of the public can challenge such information.  

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Before you get too excited, presidential tweets are not subject to the IQA. However, many of the statements issued by federal agencies are. When the IQA was originally passed, the focus was on the effect it would have on regulation. Many saw it as an attempt to hamstring agencies that used scientific information to justify regulatory initiatives. By allowing the public to challenge the underlying scientific basis for regulations, the IQA, it was thought, would make it harder to regulate.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.  Courts have generally restricted the ability of petitioners to use the IQA to sue federal agencies. The law is not settled on this matter however.

Regardless of the legal implications of filing an IQA complaint, doing so does accomplishes two things.  First, it calls attention to the use of false information by the government. Second, it forces government agencies to further defend the use of that false information, potentially weakening their ability to use that information in political debates or in court cases on other issues.

The complaint by the Democracy Forward Foundation offers a blueprint of how this may work in practice. It argues that two claims made by the Treasury Department are not accurate. The first is that the administration tax plan would save the average taxpayer between $4000 and $9000.  The second is that 70 percent of the corporate tax burden falls on workers. The Foundation backs up their claims that both of these statements are false in their 10-page letter.

The Trump administration has made itself a particularly target rich environment for potential IQA requests. In environmental policy, plans to roll back Obama administration regulations on climate change will likely rely on arguments like those made by Trump and his cabinet members that humans do not contribute to or accelerate climate change.  In fact the report recently issued by the Trump administration can even be used as evidence that the information supporting climate change regulation rollbacks are not of high quality.

Deregulatory efforts in general by the Trump administration may be ripe for IQA challenges. When the administration tries to reverse a recent regulation, that regulation was likely supported by economic analyses and scientific analyses previously endorsed by the agencies.  These earlier analyses can be used in court to challenge attempts at deregulation, but they can also be highlighted via use of the IQA.

When the IQA was passed, its supporters probably could not have envisioned an administration like the current one. While agencies subject to the IQA tend to be more careful with the truth than the president has been, when they have to defend policies that don’t have factual support, they leave themselves open to charges of abusing the truth.  The IQA is a way to highlight those abuses.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.