LEGAL: Keeping it Clean

Sometimes big changes in government happen without a lot of fanfare.

Take, for example, the Federal Data Quality Act, which became law in December 2000. Tucked into the telephone-book sized FY 2001 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 106-544), it directs the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to develop government-wide standards to ensure the quality of data and information that agencies use when preparing and issuing new regulations.

Data quality guidelines must address: quality, objectivity, utility and integrity. In turn, other federal agencies must develop corresponding standards. OMB-approved guidelines are supposed to be ready by October 1.

Once in place, the public will not be limited to challenging just agency regulations. If a proposed agency regulation is based on allegedly unsound data, studies or information, the agency must allow an interested party the opportunity to request a correction of the underlying matter. If, after such a request is filed, an agency fails or refuses to make the desired change, the requester can sue the agency.

“The Data Quality provision represents a significant advancement of good government principles,” says the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Regulatory Effectiveness (CRE). “[Because] government information routinely serves as the basis for regulation and resource allocation, it is imperative that the information on which the government bases these decisions be accurate and valid,” CRE adds.

Business groups are likely to target rules traceable to the Clean Air Act. In the past, corporations have unsuccessfully challenged many of its regulations because the courts ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., has discretion in setting emission standards and requirements. Until now, the regulated community has been unable to attack the agency's data and research underpinning the EPA's decisions.

Federal agencies concede that regulations sometimes are based on faulty data. Last spring, the EPA learned that it had set Clean Air Act standards for facilities using a flawed study that exaggerated pollutants' adverse effects. The Boston-based nonprofit Health Effects Institute, which gets support from the EPA and the business community, said a software problem may have produced results that erred by more than 20 percent. The glitch reportedly went undetected for two years.

The EPA insists that its quality assurance procedures are sufficient to detect and correct errors. And the new guidelines will place “increased importance on how information is presented to the public,” says agency spokeswoman Elaine Stanley, adding that the EPA will pay more attention to data analysis.

Meantime, critics of the act fear that the regulated community now has a potent tool to undo some federal rules. According to Sean Moulton of OMB Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based liberal organization, spotlighting a particular rule's rationale “could ultimately lead to less action by government.”