18 May 2003
Is for Europeans
By Samuel Loewenberg
another example of how the United States has decided that Europe
is stuck in the past. Bush administration officials are exasperated
with Europe's belief in the precautionary principle, a better-safe-than-sorry
approach to regulating everything from corn flakes to chemical plants.
outlined in a treaty of the European Union, governments should regulate
industries when they pose risks to public health and the environment
— even before all the data about the threat has been collected.
keeping with this precautionary approach, Europe has prohibited
bioengineered crops and American beef treated with growth hormones,
and is now crafting legislation that will require chemical companies
to spend billions of dollars on safety tests of their products.
what looks like a question of safety to the Europeans often seems
more like protectionism to the United States. The Bush administration
believes the precautionary principle is an unjustified constraint
on business and does not even recognize the existence of the doctrine.
consider it to be a mythical concept, perhaps like a unicorn,"
said John D. Graham, the administrator at the Office of Management
and Budget in charge of vetting new regulations, in a recent speech
to European Union regulators.
United States was once a leader in precautionary legislation. The
Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, both enacted in the 1970's
with bipartisan support, explicitly allow regulators to act in the
face of uncertain findings. But in the Reagan era, precautionary
regulation was seen as an enemy of the free market.
was not just a Republican aversion. Though the Clinton administration
was far more active in adopting health and environmental regulations,
it battled Europe over the bans on genetically engineered foods
and hormone-treated beef.
the Bush administration has actively challenged the very premise
on which the European actions are based.
a telephone interview, Mr. Graham said that rather than believing
in a single precautionary principle, the administration acts when
it determines that the economic and health benefits outweigh the
costs. Before implementing a rule, the administration calculates
the evidence of harm, the relative risk to a population and whether
the effect on the population justifies taking regulatory measures.
Mr. Graham cited the government's tightening of limits on diesel
fuel emissions as an example of how his agency can act preventively
when the numbers add up.
the Bush administration, the focus is on smarter regulation, defined
as applying science, engineering and economics, to proposed rules,"
said Mr. Graham, who became known for his cost-benefit theories
after founding the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Mr. Graham
said that when he started in 2001, his office challenged dozens
of rules proposed by federal agencies, but these days his office
has not needed to send any rules back, as agencies have learned
what is acceptable.
argue that Mr. Graham's cost-benefit analyses often lead to the
delay or watering down of health and environmental regulations.
is a cloak in many respects for limiting regulation without having
to be openly antienvironmental or antiworker or anticonsumer,"
said Gary D. Bass, the director of OMB Watch, a government watchdog
instance, President Bush withdrew from the international agreement
on reducing carbon emissions in order to limit global warming, arguing
that more data was needed before taking action.
another split, Europe recently required industry to run extensive
health and environmental tests on the 30,000 most common chemicals.
Nearly all of these chemicals have been around for decades, but
European officials say little data is available on the vast majority
of the chemicals, and that the potential benefits more than justify
the cost to industry.
Bush administration is up in arms over the proposal. The American
Chemistry Council, the industry's main trade group, contends that
the European Union wants to "eliminate all risks from daily
life" and "replace science with speculation." The
United States has a voluntary program in which companies disclose
information on 2,200 of their most common chemicals. Mr. Graham
says this is equally precautionary and a better use of limited resources.
Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago who is writing
a book on the precautionary principle, believes that strict adherence
to the principle can be counterproductive — like curbs on
biotechnology, which, he says, could help feed the developing world.
the same time, he argues that it is unreasonable for governments
to demand absolute certainty before they act. "It's nutty to
require conclusive evidence when the risk, if it comes to fruition,
is extremely serious," Mr. Sunstein said.
was the logic, Mr. Sunstein notes, of President Bush's pre-emptive
strike on Iraq. President Bush argued that the risk of weapons of
mass destruction was great enough to warrant an attack, without
absolute proof that Iraq was hiding such weapons.
the precautionary principle, American-style.
Loewenberg is a journalist who covers policy and politics.