Big Problems at 3 Federal Agencies

June 11, 2008

Student readings about critical problems at the Federal Election Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency are followed by discussion questions, suggestions for further inquiry, writing assignments & citizenship activities.

Americans are generally aware that a host of federal agencies are responsible for ensuring the proper functioning and safety of our highways, nuclear plants, financial markets, coal mines and a whole lot more.

We usually hear little about them-unless something goes wrong. And some things have gone seriously wrong at some agencies, but a protracted presidential primary season did not produce questions to the candidates about them.

The three student readings below deal, in turn, with the Federal Election Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, responsible respectively for the safety of our elections, food and drugs, and the environment. Each reading gives special attention to some of the things that have gone wrong at these agencies. The readings are followed by discussion questions, suggestions for further inquiry, writing assignments and citizenship activities.
 


I. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION: "No one on the watch"

To the Teacher

During each election cycle presidential campaign costs and the attendant fundraising grow—with consequences for American democracy that do not receive anything like the media attention lavished on flag pins, tears, or age.

The Federal Election Commission is responsible for administering and enforcing rules on financing presidential election campaigns. At best, the FEC has been a frail reed on which to depend. But for the past few crucial primary months, it has been unable to function at all because of political conflicts between President Bush and the Senate majority Democrats. The student reading below discusses the FEC and some of the major issues it still needs to address.

Inform students that on June 24, 2008, the Senate voted to confirm five nominees for the FEC, which can now begin working on the neglected issues raised in the student reading on the commission.

The following additional sets of materials on presidential campaign fundraising are available in the high school section: "The Presidential Campaign: The Race for Money" describes an inquiry-oriented approach to fundraising and includes an annotated list of major sources of information; "Presidential Campaign 2008: Hillraisers, McCain 100s and Public Campaign Funding" focuses on bundling and the public campaign funding system; "Presidential Campaign 2004: The Impact of Campaign Spending" provides an outline history of the development of campaign finance and a discussion of why people contribute to campaigns.
 

Student Reading

Presidential candidates are frequent jet travelers. But should a candidate be allowed to travel around the country at little or no cost in a corporate jet-while other candidates have to pay full fare? Normally, federal regulations require presidential candidates to pay full charter costs for travel.

McCain's Jet

Nonetheless, according to the New York Times on April 27, 2008, "McCain Frequently Used Wife's Jet for Little Cost" (www.nytimes.com). For seven months beginning in August 2007, John McCain and his presidential campaign staff flew in the corporate jet of Cindy McCain, the candidate's wife. During five of these months the jet was used almost solely for the campaign, which paid $241,149 for the service. According to charter jet sources, this would normally cover charter jet costs for only a month or two-not five. The Times said its analysis and figures "may be inexact" because it did not know how many members of the campaign flew on the jet or how frequently.

McCain was able to fly so inexpensively because federal election law exempts planes owned by a candidate, his family or a private company it controls from regulations requiring payment of full charter jet costs. The senator himself supported legislation requiring candidates to pay the actual costs of flying on corporate jets.

To close this loophole in presidential financing, the Federal Election Committee (FEC) began, but did not complete, work on new rules last December. "This amounts to a subsidy for his [McCain's] campaign," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that collects, analyzes, and publishes campaign finance information on its website. (www.opensecrets.org)

The FEC was created in 1975 to administer and enforce rules on the financing of federal elections. That includes enforcing limits on contributions to presidential candidates; overseeing public funding to them; and publishing campaign finance information. It has 375 auditors, lawyers and investigators to carry out its work.

No quorum

The FEC did not complete new rules to level the playing field for presidential candidate travel because this regulatory agency requires a quorum to act. It is authorized to have six commission members and, in an effort to make it as even-handed in its rulings as possible, three from each party. The members are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. But since early this year the FEC has had only two members, not enough to complete any of its business legally. The reason: President Bush and the Democrats who now control the Senate cannot agree on how the four vacant positions should be filled.

"Incredibly, the FEC cannot address any complaints against presidential candidates," editorialized Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "With no one on the watch, who's to say some unscrupulous souls won't violate the law in order to gain advantage in an election? Once an election is over there is no unseating the winners, whether or not they played by the rules." (www.FixtheFEC.org)

Other neglected issues

  • The FEC needs to write rules for a major reform passed in 2007 that requires lobbyists to disclose fully the multiple donors and donations bundled to curry favor with presidential candidates. (An individual donor may not contribute more than $2300 to a campaign. But lobbyists have created the practice of bundling $100,000 and more, perhaps much more, and giving the money to a campaign without full disclosure of its sources.)
     
  • The FEC is charged with regulating "527s," the independent special interest groups organized to influence elections while avoiding contribution rules. The term "527" refers to a section of the Internal Revenue Service code. 527s may accept unlimited amounts of money from wealthy people, corporations, and organizations but are not allowed to campaign directly for a candidate. Instead, they run TV and newspaper ads and pay for events designed to focus on issues that will cast their candidate in a favorable light. (527s also sometimes cast an unfavorable light on an opponent—as did the 527 known as "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," which helped defeat Senator John Kerry's bid for the presidency in 2004.) Typically, the candidate who benefits from the work of a 527 organization says that the 527 has no official connection with his party and he has no control over what it does.
     
  • The FEC is also responsible for regulating 501(c)(3)s, non-profit, tax-exempt "social welfare" groups that are allowed to urge votes for a candidate as long as political campaigning is not the main purpose of the organization. These groups may also speak out on public policy issues, hold public forums, run get-out-the-vote campaigns and distribute voter education guides.

"Special-interest money in politics is said to be like water-blocking its flow in one direction only channels it to another," said a New York Times editorial in January 2008.

Senators McCain and Russ Feingold led the fight in 2002 for reforms that regulated so-called "soft money," unregulated sums contributed, for example, to a political party, as distinguished from "hard money" contributed directly to candidates.

But FEC regulators "have done little to stop [the 527s and 501(c)(3)s] even when campaign finance laws are being violated," charged the Times. The agency, it said, is "slow-moving and weak," failing to impose fines for violations found in 2004 until late in 2007. ("Drowning in Special-Interest Money," editorial, www.nytimes.com, 1/2/08)
 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What objection is there to a candidate's flying around the country for a reduced rate or for free in a corporate jet?

3. Why hasn't the FEC completed its regulations on presidential campaign travel or other issues?

4. What are 527s? Why have such organizations been formed recently?

5. What are 501(c)(3)s? How might they influence election results?

For inquiry

  • The presidential candidates have already exceeded the $1 billion mark in campaign fundraising. Where does all this money come from? Why? With what consequences? How is it spent?
     
  • What has happened to public campaign funding? Why? With what consequences?
     
  • How effective has the FEC been in keeping campaign finance under control?
     
  • What impact does the huge cost of presidential campaigns have on American democracy?

These are a few of the major questions raised by the power of money in presidential campaigns that students might profitably investigate, share with the class, discuss, and write about.

Additional subjects for inquiry might include:

  • The functioning of the FEC and its critics
  • A 527 group and its political activities
  • A 501(c)(3) group and its political activities
  • Swift Boat Veterans for Truth

For writing and citizenship

Following their inquiry, have students share the results and their opinions with their representative, senators, the President. To encourage a substantive response, students should include a carefully focused question for the official to answer.

 


II. FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION: "Terrible Leadership"

To the Teacher

Americans' confidence in the Food and Drug Administration has been shaken in recent times. A number of news stories, including those highlighted in the reading below, have called into question the agency's ability to guarantee that the food we buy at the supermarket and the over-the-counter and prescription drugs we use are safe. Further, some charge that the FDA has a conflict of interest, since it both regulates drug companies and relies on them to pay its bills.

Yet the presidential candidates have said virtually nothing about how to solve the FDA's problems.

Teachers might find useful "The K Street Strategy" in the high school section of TeachableMoment. It examines the role of lobbyists in influencing governmental activities and especially their influence on the creation of a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Student Reading

"There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. The rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together."
—Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

The Jungle is a 1906 novel about the men and women who work in Chicago's stockyards and processing factories in conditions that nauseated and mesmerized Americans in that year. They included President Theodore Roosevelt, who received a copy directly from Sinclair and felt strongly enough about its contents to send investigators to Chicago.

Public attention focused less on the filthy and dangerous conditions for the workers than on the filthy and dangerous meat sent out to stores across the country. In 1906 few federal laws regulated food and drugs produced in the United States. But that same year Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and legislation establishing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a federal regulatory agency responsible for the health and safety of Americans.

The FDA today

More than 100 years later, the FDA has thousands of employees and a budget of more than $2 billion to ensure "that the food we eat is safe and wholesome, that the cosmetics we use won't harm us, and that medicines, medical devises, and radiation-emitting consumer products such as microwave ovens are safe and effective." (www.fda.gov)

Recent FDA actions have included publishing warnings about raw milk and shutting down a laboratory for cold medicines that hadn't received FDA approval.

In recent years the FDA has been the subject of such news stories as the following:

  • "Chinese Wheat Gluten in Deadly Pet Food Banned from U.S." (www.FoxNews.com, 4/2/07) At least 16 dogs and cats died and hundreds were sickened by eating a chemical found in pet food that Chinese manufacturers had exported to the U.S.. This was but one of a series of Chinese products-tires, fish, jewelry and toys-that the FDA found to be dangerous and ordered recalled. Two Chinese companies and one American importer were later indicted for fraud and deliberately misleading American manufacturers about the poisonous ingredients in pet foods.
     
  • "Tainted Drugs Put Focus on the FDA." (www.nytimes.com, 2/15/08 and 3/17/08) A congressional investigation found that 566 Chinese plants export drugs to the U.S., but last year the FDA inspected just 13 of them. The FDA violated its own rule about approving a drug without first inspecting the plant that made it. The inquiry resulted from concerns about the dozens of deaths and hundreds of illnesses in the U.S. from the drug heparin.
     
  • "Dennis Quaid's Newborns given Accidental Overdose" (www.abcnews.com, 11/21/07) The Quaids' newborn twins were mistakenly given large doses of the blood thinner heparin that could have been fatal, but fortunately were not. The Quaids claimed the mistake occurred because of confusing packaging, but the drug company said that the FDA approved it.
     
  • "The Biggest Beef Recall Ever" (www.nytimes.com, 2/21/08) "A nauseating video of cows stumbling on their way to a California slaughterhouse has finally prompted action, the largest recall of meat in American history." The Humane Society secretly videotaped the scene as workers for the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company kicked and used forklifts to force sick cows to walk. The company had sold 37 million pounds of meat to school lunch programs and more than another 100 million to the general public over two years. Fortunately, no illnesses were reported.
     
  • "Merck Agrees To Settlement Over Vioxx Ads" (www.nytimes.com, 5/21 and 5/23/08) The drug maker Merck agreed to pay $58 million after it was accused of playing down the risks of its popular painkiller Vioxx in an aggressive marketing campaign. The drug was withdrawn from the market in 2004 after Merck found that it doubled heart attack risks. Merck will submit its new TV commercials to the FDA. The agency is now developing a new system to monitor unexpected side effects of drugs it has already approved—but it will take years before this new system is fully in place.

What's wrong with the FDA?

As the articles demonstrate, the FDA has a number of problems, including:

  • very limited inspections of American meat plants
  • limited inspections of foreign plants exporting drugs to the U.S.
  • inadequate oversight of drug makers' TV commercials and packaging
  • failure to monitor drugs for unexpected side effects after they have been approved

The FDA's many shortcomings were summed up in an alarming report by the agency's scientific advisory panel: "The nation's food supply is at risk, its drugs are potentially dangerous and its citizens' lives are at stake because the Food and Drug Administration is desperately short of money and poorly organized." The report noted that the FDA's responsibilities keep growing, but not its budget. Recently, for example, the FDA's aging computer system broke down during an E. coli food investigation. (www.nytimes.com, 12/1/07)

Public Citizen's Health Letter editor Sidney Wolfe was even harsher: "The situation at the FDA has never been worse than now," he charges. He cites "terrible leadership at the FDA" and "a perilously low level of Congressional oversight and oversight hearings."

He also noted the "increasing reliance on industry to fund FDA activities." For example, drug companies pay most of the bill for the FDA drug approval process and get concessions for doing so. According to medical officers at the FDA, those "concessions" have included lowered safety standards and supervisor pressure to approve drugs. A number of these officers state in a survey that "decisions should be based more on science and less on corporate wishes." (April 2008)
 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What problems is the FDA having? Who or what is responsible for them? What might be done? How? If you need more information, how would you look for it?

3. Consider the FDA's "reliance on industry" to fund its activities. What conflicts of interest might this create? How might they be avoided?

4. Why would FDA oversight of drug makers' TV commercials be important to public health? Oversight of packaging?

5. What connection might there be between "a perilously low level of Congressional oversight" and the political influence of drug makers? Why do you suppose they have such influence? Drug makers are significant contributors to the political campaigns of legislators. To learn more about such contributions, see www.opensecrets.org.

For inquiry

Possible subjects for further inquiry include:

  • The FDA's "terrible leadership"
  • Drug maker political influence on the FDA and members of Congress
  • The FDA's process in authorizing the sale of a drug and how the company that produced it ends up paying much of the bill
  • Weak congressional oversight of the FDA
  • A closer examination of one of the stories in the reading
  • Impact of The Jungle on Americans

For writing and citizenship

Are students interested in urging presidential candidates to focus attention on the FDA's problems?

If so, they might prepare a petition and organize a drive in the school to get as many student signatures as possible. They could also communicate by phone, letter or email with the candidates to acquaint them with FDA problems and the need for solutions.
Perhaps this activity could focus on a single question. For example: Why does the FDA rely on industry to fund its activities?

 


III. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY: Politics & 'Junk Science'

To the Teacher

Critics have repeatedly charged that the EPA's environmental findings are contaminated by what Robert Kennedy Jr. calls "junk science." Politics and ideology seem to be at the heart of problem, which is the focus of the student reading below.

Student Reading

The air in NYC after 9/11

The 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center released 2,000 tons of asbestos and hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete in the form of dust into the air and water of New York City.

During the week following the attack, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that air and water problems were "not of concern." EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said: "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York...that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." (9/18/01)

But in 2003, a report from the Office of the Inspector General of the EPA said that the agency had lacked the information it needed to assess air and water quality after 9/11. In a 2006 CBS report, Dr. Cate Jenkins, an EPA scientist, went further and declared that the agency had lied. "This air was highly caustic, in some cases as caustic and alkaline as Drano."

On "60 Minutes," a few days later, Whitman said that when EPA officials reported the air safe, they "were talking about the air around lower Manhattan, not the air directly at ground zero." In the CBS report, Vinny Forras, a World Trade Center worker, now suffering from lung scarring and other ailments, said workers were told, "Don't worry about it, because the air is okay." (www.cbs.com, 9/8/06)

The New York Post reported on September 24, 2006, that the office of then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice "gave final approval to EPA statements about air quality and omitted warnings from EPA press releases because of "competing priorities" such as national security and the imperative of "opening Wall Street," according to the EPA's Inspector General.

The EPA's work

"The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment," the EPA declares on its website. Since 1970, the EPA has been working for a cleaner healthier environment for the American people." (www.epa.gov)

More than half of the EPA's 17,000 employees are engineers, scientists, and policy analysts. They enforce environmental laws enacted by Congress, research and set standards for a variety of environmental programs, and fund research grants and educational projects.

A major EPA effort over the past 20 years has been Superfund, a "program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites." The EPA has worked with others to clean up and protect the environment "from contamination at the worst sites."

The EPA has projects in about 36,000 schools around the country. For instance, at an elementary school in Yonkers, New York, an EPA project called Groundwork Yonkers has helped students, volunteers, and senior citizens turn a blighted schoolyard into a garden. The project aims to reduce pollution, develop ecological literacy and serve as a resource for teachers elsewhere in Yonkers.

The EPA has also partnered with more than 11,000 organizations to improve energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop cost effective, climate-friendly technologies. The EPA website describes many additional projects from a pollution-reduction project in Chesapeake Bay to an agreement with Mexico and Canada "to ensure the safe manufacture and use of industrial chemicals."

Interference with science at the EPA

Scientists working at the EPA and other federal agencies as well as independent American scientists have repeatedly criticized the Bush White House for omitting or misrepresenting scientific findings, skewing EPA reports.

  • "In 2003 when the Environmental Protection Agency tried to loosen standards regulating mercury pollution, sections of the proposed rules were lifted directly from industry documents." (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., "The Junk Science of George W. Bush," The Nation, 3/8/04)
     
  • "...the White House acknowledged that Philip A. Cooney, the Administration official who once led the oil industry's efforts to prevent limits on greenhouse gases, had repeatedly altered government climate reports in order to minimize the relationship between such emissions and global warming..." (Kennedy, The Nation, 3/8/04)
     
  • "The EPA proposed new rules governing the Clean Air Act which ignore the advice of its own staff, the recommendation of the agency's scientific advisory committee, and evidence from thousands of studies." (Michael Spector, The New Yorker, 3/13/06)
     
  • The EPA's regional office in the western Everglades accepted a study financed predominately by developers, which "concludes that wetlands discharge more pollutants than they absorb." (Kennedy, The Nation , 3/8/04). "There was no peer review or public comment. With its approval, the EPA is giving developers credit for improving water quality by replacing natural wetlands with golf courses and other developments." The study, writes Kennedy, "contradicts everything known about wetlands functioning....Bruce Boler, a biologist and water-quality specialist working for the EPA office, resigned in protest...'It was like the politics trumped the science,' he told us."
     
  • "The Environmental Protection Agency weakened one part of its new limits on smog-forming ozone after an unusual last-minute intervention by President Bush, according to documents released by the EPA. EPA officials initially tried to set a lower seasonal limit on ozone to protect wildlife, parks, and farmland as required under the law....Bush overruled EPA officials and...ordered the agency to increase the limits, according to documents." Ozone is "linked to an array of heart and respiratory illnesses." (Juliet E. Iperin, Washington Post, 3/14/08)

Scientists and the Bush administration

Several years ago more than 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel Prize winners in science, issued a statement that "the Bush administration had systematically distorted scientific fact in the service of policy goals on the environment, health, biomedical research, and nuclear weaponry at home and abroad." The science advisor to President Bush, Dr. John H. Marburger III said it was important to listen to the country's scientific leadership but that the report did not make a good case or "add up to a big pattern of disrespect." He did not offer specific objections. (James Glanz, "Scientists Say Administration Distorts Facts," New York Times , 2/18/04)

A detailed report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, "Federal Science and the Public Good," declares in its Executive Summary: "Political interference in science has penetrated deeply into the culture and practices of federal agencies....[It] threatens our nation's ability to respond to complex challenges to public health, the environment and national security. It risks demoralizing the federal science workforce and raises the possibility of lasting harm to the federal scientific enterprise. Most important, it betrays public trust in our government and undermines the democratic principles upon which the nation was founded." (www.ucsusa.org, 2/08)
 

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is the basic purpose of the EPA? Why is it important?

3. How would you assess EPA's response to 9/11? How might "national security" or "opening Wall Street" have anything to do with "omitting warnings" in EPA press releases about dangerous air and water conditions in New York City following the terrorist attacks? How could you find out more about the reliability of allegations that National Security Advisor Rice censored EPA press releases?

4. Other allegations of interference with the EPA's work include: loosening regulations on mercury emissions; minimizing the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change; changing rules for water quality in the Everglades; ignoring science advisories on rules for the Clear Air Act; and weakening limits on smog-forming ozone. In each case, discuss who might benefit and why from such changes. How might students find more information on each case if they need to?

For writing and citizenship

Write a letter or an e-mail to a representative, a senator, or the president on one issue raised in the readings that you feel strongly about. Your letter should express your opinion about the issue with supporting evidence and be clear and to the point. To encourage a specific answer, you might close your letter with a carefully worded question you ask the official to answer.

For inquiry and citizenship

1. The Clean Air Act and the EPA
2. The Everglades and the EPA
3. Mercury pollution and the EPA
4. Smog-forming ozone and the EPA
5. Political interference in science at the EPA
6. An environmental issue in the school or community

Have individuals or a small group of students formulate a question (which the teacher must approve) to guide an inquiry into one of these subjects. An investigation of a school or community environmental issue provides an opportunity for both student learning and community action. For suggestions see "Teaching Social Responsibility." 
 


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org