Think science should inform policy? Then I’m here to tell you why you should care about democracy reform. We don’t get science-based policies unless our political system allows for it. And we don’t get policies that protect people unless decision makers have our interests in mind. Right now, that political system is broken. Voters have been disenfranchised. Moneyed interests have drowned out science and evidence in policy debates. And much of this is happening behind closed doors.
But we can fix it. One of the first bills introduced by the new House of Representatives this January tackles this crucial issue. House Resolution 1 (H.R. 1) is a bill focused on addressing the corruption of this administration and restoring several important pillars of our democratic system: voting rights, money in politics, and ethics. We need everyone on board who cares about evidence in policy decisions. Here are three reasons the scientific community should support H.R. 1:
WE NEED POLICY DEBATES IMFORMED BY SCIENCE, NOT MONEY
Policy decisions should be informed by science and evidence. Unfortunately, scientific information often gets drowned out by moneyed interests in what should be science-informed policy conversations. Large industry-funded groups can inject misinformation into policy debates with little accountability for who funds them.
This didn’t happen by accident. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, issued nine years ago this week, opened the floodgates to allow trade groups and politically active “social welfare” groups to pour unlimited amounts of money into political activities. And alarmingly, the public doesn’t know where the funding for these groups comes from. This leaves no accountability for the individuals and companies responsible for any misinformation being spread. And this isn’t just a hypothetical scenario. Science policy debates have been sidelined by money in politics on multiple occasions.
Take Initiative 1631, Washington State’s carbon fee proposal from last year. The “No on I-1631” campaign, sponsored by the fossil fuel industry trade group the Western States Petroleum Association, ran ads opposing the proposal with misleading information and unclear funding sources. Altogether, the fossil fuel industry, through companies and trade groups like the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers, poured nearly $30 million dollars into defeating the measure, making it the most expensive ballot measure the state has ever seen. The proposal was defeated in November.
Or take Chicago’s soda tax proposal. There is scientific evidence that sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is linked to metabolic diseases. One policy idea to address this public health threat that has shown promising effectiveness so far is taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. The soda industry, led by the American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola and PepsiCo among others, poured tremendous amounts of cash into defeating Chicago’s proposal and similar ones in other cities, funding ads designed to mislead the public.
Science, of course, doesn’t tell us that we need carbon fees or soda taxes specifically. But science does tell us about the severity and urgency of threats to public health and safety, like climate change and the obesity epidemic. And science can point us towards solutions, like reducing greenhouse gases and disincentivizing sugary beverage consumption. Communities and their decisionmakers should have the freedom to use science to propose and debate policy solutions in a transparent way, without the injection of misinformation and waves of cash from anonymous sources. When the public is left in the dark on who is influencing policy decisions, we risk a system that is more responsive to special interests than the public interest.
The solutions proposed in H.R. 1, which builds on previous proposals, would shine a light on corporate political activities and help ensure science and evidence isn’t overtaken by the outsized influence of shadowy, industry-tied groups. The bill provisions include the perennially introduced Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act, which would increase the (prompt) disclosure of money in politics and eliminate foreign political spending. Also, in the bill is a provision for the Securities and Exchange Commission to enact a political disclosure rule—a rule that has received the support of more than a million people and would require public companies to disclose more about their political activities to their investors and the public. Finally, a separate provision would require government contractors to disclose their political spending. These provisions help to unveil some of the dark money that currently influences our nation’s decisionmakers.
RESTORING VOTING RIGHTS PROMOTES EVIDENCE-BASED POLICIES
All Americans should have the ability to vote. When people can exercise their right to vote, their representatives better reflect their interests. Conversely, when groups of people are disenfranchised, policymakers are less beholden to their constituents. This leads to fewer policies that use evidence and reflect the interests of the people. One recent study found that nearly two thirds of the congressional districts with above-average levels of air pollution had below-average voter turnout in 2016.
Communities should have a say in policies that affect their daily lives. Automatic voter registration, increased ballot access, and creating nonpartisan, proportional election districts would encourage voter participation, which in turn would put pressure on elected officials at the local, state and federal level to pay more attention to their constituents and pay less attention to special interests and any misinformation being pushed on them. The bill addresses many of these issues and counters many of the voting rights protections lost in the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act.
WE DESERVE ACCESS TO TAXPAPER-FUNDED REPORTS
The public should have access to information produced by the federal government. One important element of the bill would mandate that all Congressionally mandated reports would be made public. This is a no-brainer. It would allow the public to better watchdog the degree to which members of Congress are relying on evidence to make decisions, and to understand what federal agencies are working on. When the public has better access to the same information that Congress does, we can better assess whether our decision makers are using science and acting in the public interest.
Care about science? Demand a better democracy
In science, we trust the results of scientific studies if we trust the data and methods used. In our democracy, we need a system we can trust if we expect to get policy makers and policies that follow the science and serve the public interest. Let’s fix the system.
Join me in expressing support for H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019, by signing this petition and spreading the word. We can’t afford a government that doesn’t use science to work for the people.