Getting information out of government agencies is like pulling teeth at the best of times, but more often than not it can feel like an unending struggle against willful obstructionism marinated with incompetence.
That's certainly been the experience of Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Stier has been battling to get the Food and Drug Administration to disclose relevant documents relating to one of the most important tobacco regulations of modern times.
The FDA's Deeming Rule, some parts of which have been delayed by Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, imposes a draconian regulatory process on e-cigarettes and other reduced-risk nicotine products that are helping smokers quit.
If the rule is not significantly reformed, the vast majority of independent e-cigarette businesses will be forced to shut their doors in 2022, dramatically reducing options for smokers to switch and reduce their risk of smoking-related disease.
According to the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom, the risks of vaping are unlikely to exceed 5 percent of those of smoking and there is a large volume of evidence showing e-cigarettes are helping smokers quit.
It is therefore vital the public has access to the information and internal reasoning that served as the basis for a rule which threatens public health and could destroy thousands of businesses.
Beginning with a freedom of information request last June, Stier went back and forth with the FDA to get the relevant information out to the public. As anyone who has filed a FOIA request knows, it is not uncommon nor unreasonable for government entities to ask the applicant to narrow the scope of their request.
This can ensure time and resources are used effectively -- on the other hand, it can mean the valuable information is missed in the final disclosure. Over the course of a year, Stier corresponded with the FDA to narrow the scope of his requests.
So far, so frustrating.
But the strangest episode of this bureaucratic slog was a request in mid-June 2017 from the FDA for a teleconference, to which Stier agreed. The purpose of the call was to discuss how the request could be narrowed further. After Stier accepted the meeting, it was canceled due to a scheduling conflict on the FDA's end.
The FDA offered to a reschedule for the week of June 26, Stier agreed. When he followed up asking about the date of the rescheduling, he received no response.
On June 26, Stier received an email telling him that the Office of Regulations had already pulled the trigger on his request before any conversations about narrowing the scope of the request had taken place.
So the agency that was more than a year beyond the statutory deadline for responses suddenly transformed into a paragon of speed and action. So speedy, in fact, that they'd forgotten to reschedule a meeting they themselves proposed.
And it just so happens that this action resulted in 10,000 pages being pulled due to the complexity and volume of these documents, and it may now take up to another year to complete reviewing.
Understandably frustrated with the turn of events, Stier told the FDA:
Any impact from the error that the Office of Regulations made by jumping the gun before we met to narrow the scope, as we had agreed to do, should fall squarely on that office -- not on the public's right to understand how the rule was made -- and in the most timely way possible -- even though the FDA already is beyond the statutory response time.
Stier was told the documents would start to be reviewed in early July and someone would reach out to him soon after. But as we begin September, no further communications from the FDA have been received.
Most of us realize government is not a well-oiled machine with a stunning record of efficiency. But the fact that a top tier government agency can take up to two years to release information that could have a decisive impact on one of the nation's most serious public health debates shows with admirable clarity just how badly our federal bureaucracies are failing in their duties to the American people.
Guy Bentley (@gbentley1) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a consumer freedom research associate at the Reason Foundation and was previously a reporter for the Daily Caller.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.