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Published: Friday, 3/19/2004

Politics and the GAO

THE General Accounting Office, Congress' nonpartisan investigatory agency, has a reputation for providing reliable, unbiased information on important public issues. We hate to see that reputation tarnished, as seems to be the case with a new report on exhaust-emission standards for diesel-powered heavy vehicles.

It's been reported that GAO allowed itself to be commandeered by a group of 19 Republican lawmakers to prepare a one-sided report on the emission standards reflecting the views of the major trucking companies and engine makers.

The apparent goal was to produce a report the truckers and manufacturers could then use to give credibility to their opposition to the anti-pollution regulations - by making it appear that the GAO was agreeing with them.

If that is the case, we have two problems. One is with the GAO for helping to squander its reputation for being a straight shooter. The other is with the GOP cabal for politicizing this very important independent agency, just as many federal agencies have been co-opted during the age of one-party rule in Washington.

The lawmaker behind the report is Rep. Mac Collins, of Georgia, who is - surprise! - the founder of a trucking company and a fervent opponent of clean-air regulations, especially as they pertain to diesel engines.

Mr. Collins, who is running for the U.S. Senate this year to replace the retiring Zell Miller, is among the top recipients of political action committee donations from the trucking industry, which lent the views of 10 of its members to the GAO report.

The report appeared to be timed to counter a notice a week earlier from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that engine manufacturers are "on target" to meet the 2007 diesel requirements the truckers want to somehow avoid or delay.

Why should anyone except political insiders care about this? Because less diesel pollution means better health for the general public, according to the EPA.

"Once the 2007 program is fully implemented, 2.6 million tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxide emissions will be reduced each year," the agency said. "Soot or particulate matter will be reduced by 110,000 tons a year. An estimated 8,300 premature deaths; 5,500 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 17,600 cases of acute bronchitis in children will also be prevented annually. It is also estimated to help avoid more than 360,000 asthma attacks and 386,000 cases of respiratory symptoms in asthmatic children every year. In addition, 1.5 million lost work days; 7,100 hospital visits, and 2,400 emergency room visits for asthma will be prevented."

Political importuning of a federal agency to put out one-sided or misleading information is harmful to the governmental process.

If the conclusions of a study can be assured in advance by limiting the scope of the inquiry, the GAO is only hurting its credibility. And that's a commodity in short supply these days in Washington.

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