Controversial Regulatory Czar on the Hill

President Bush's choice for regulations gatekeeper, John Graham, faced tough scrutiny on Capitol Hill Thursday in his Senate confirmation hearings. 

Graham's supporters say he has made a career out of slicing through political posturing and asking whether proposed regulations are worth the money they cost. 

But several consumer and environmental groups are strongly opposed to Graham's nomination, and Public Citizen, the left-wing group founded by Ralph Nader, is among those who supplied written testimony against him.

Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook wrote that Graham, a Harvard professor and head of the university's Center for Risk Analysis, is only interested in doing what costs the least for big business and will avoid adopting strict environmental and health standards that come across his desk — especially if they're pricey.

"His appointment would give regulated industries a wide-open back door to the White House," Claybrook wrote in testimony the Committee will consider.

Graham's supporters believe he is a federal regulations expert with two decades of experience. And, they say, cost-benefit analysis should be a part of the federal regulatory process.

"There are competing world views on how to analyze risk," said the Harvard Center's David Ropeik, director of risk communication and Graham's right-hand man there. "Ours promotes the use of fact-based, science-based analysis to help save more lives and protect the environment."

Some members of the Senate committee are split along party lines about installing Graham as head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), part of the Office of Management and Budget. Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee fought for Graham, while Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois vehemently opposed him during the hearings. Moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were more neutral in their inquiries.

The Senate committee promised to consider Graham for the job but didn't indicate when they'd make their decision.

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 Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. OIRA cannot overrule those departments — but can hold up the regulations approval process and poke holes in those that seem at odds with the president's wishes.

Typically, the president takes the OIRA chief’s advice. 

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.

The brouhaha over Graham's nomination began months ago and captured public attention in March, when Public Citizen issued a 130-page denunciation of the Harvard professor. 

“Installing an industry-funded flack in such a crucial position would harm the public for generations,” Claybrook 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, the 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. This renders the center’s research suspect, according to Public Citizen. 

But another reason for the group's ire, say Graham 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,” Ropeik said. “Industrial advocates are going to be happier with him than environmental ones. They like the rational, fact-based, less emotional approach.”  

Graham has not been allowed to comment publicly until after the confirmation process is over. But people who have worked with him say he has been willing to hold industries to higher safety and health standards when he thinks it’s necessary. 

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 airbags. 

“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.