To them, John Graham is a big business hack who can’t be trusted to uphold environmental and health standards, especially if they’re expensive or damaging to industry.
But to many of those who know him, Graham is a level-headed expert in federal regulations with two decades of experience. As founder and head of Harvard’s Center for Risk Analysis, they say he has made a career out of cutting through the zeal and political posturing that can accompany regulatory efforts and asking a question he thinks is often ignored: Is a proposed regulation worth it?
Seat belts and airbags are worth the cost, Graham believes. But what about filters on uranium treatment plants — with a price tag of $34 billion per year of life saved?
“He wants to do the most cost-effective things first,” said Ken Green, the environmental program director at the Reason Public Policy Institute , a libertarian think tank. He said Graham believes "the reality is that human health risks transmitted through the environment rank pretty low on the list of what’s harming and killing people."
Employing that sort of cost-benefit analysis was not a hallmark of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs — one of the least scrutinized but more powerful arms of the White House — during the Clinton years.
The OIRA administrator is responsible for reviewing new rules proposed by all 50 federal regulatory agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Office of the American Workplace and the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. OIRA cannot overrule those departments, but it can hold up the regulations approval process and poke holes in those that seem to be at odds with the president's wishes. Typically, the president takes the OIRA chief’s advice.
Graham hasn’t yet been confirmed to head the office, but his nomination is already drawing scorn from advocacy groups such as Public Citizen, established by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Within hours of the announcement, the group issued a 130-page denunciation of Graham that was reported and editorialized on in The New York Times and other national media outlets.
“Rather than being a fair-minded assessor, Graham would continue to conspire with the chemical polluters, the tobacco industry, automakers, the oil and gas industries and others to stop the issuance of safety protections,” Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said in a statement.
“Installing an industry-funded flack in such a crucial position would harm the public for generations,” she warned.
It’s common for advocacy organizations to get upset about any new OIRA administrator — since the department is, in essence, an agency watchdog. During the Reagan years, OIRA under head Wendy Gramm was criticized by some as a "black hole" that sucked up a host of proposed environmental and health rules.
Public Citizen’s main gripe is that Graham’s research has been partly financed by industry groups and corporations such as General Motors, Exxon, ARCO Chemical, and Monsanto. About 60 percent of the center’s $3 million annual budget comes from private grants — most of them from corporate funders, the Times reported. This renders the center’s research suspect, according to Public Citizen.
But another reason for the group's ire, say Graham’s supporters, is that its members don’t like his conclusions.
“It’s unfair to say science you don’t like the results of is corrupt because of who paid for it,” said David Ropeik, the director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. “It’s just nonsense.”
Graham is not allowed to comment publicly while the confirmation process is underway. But people who have worked with him say his risk analysis research at Harvard shows he has been willing to hold industries to higher safety and health standards when he thinks it’s necessary.
Graham published a study with Harvard graduate students in 1995 comparing the cost-effectiveness of hundreds of life-saving regulations. His research found that while mandatory seat belt regulations, for example, cost close to nothing for each year of life saved, controls on emissions at uranium fuel plants cost roughly $34 billion per year of life saved.
In the past, Graham has recommended tightened standards in areas such as indoor pollution and car safety. Regulations resulting from his research on airbags has cost the auto industry millions of dollars and forced car manufacturers to improve airbag quality so as to cut down on injuries, especially to children.
“John will surprise people with his willingness to use OIRA to look into areas where new regulations might be appropriate,” predicted Paul Portney, president of Resources for the Future, an environmental and energy think tank.
Bush chose Graham for the position last month, but his confirmation hearings before the Senate Government Operations Committee have not yet been scheduled. Thus far, no one on the committee has publicly objected to the nomination.