Committees May Target Environment Under Floor Package

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Dean Scott and Rachel Leven

House Republicans prevailed Jan. 3 on a rules package that directs committees to highlight specific environmental and other federal regulations—and in some cases, entire agencies—that they think should be scrapped.

The House passed the rules package (H. Res. 5) by a vote of 234-193 after House Republicans voted to keep Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in his post as House speaker for the 115th Congress. Introduced by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the rules package sets out how legislation will be handled over the next two years of assured Republican rule in the chamber.

Under the rules package, most committees—with the exception of House rules, appropriations and ethics committees—are to include regulations and agencies they would target in an authorization and oversight plan. The committees are to finish those plans no later than Feb. 15. Included in the plan: recommendations for “consolidation or termination” of any programs or agencies deemed “duplicative, unnecessary, or inconsistent with the appropriate roles and responsibilities” of the federal government.

For environmental regulation, the change presumably could embolden Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Environmental Protection Agency, to recommend ending certain programs or fuel calls for combining the agency with the Energy Department.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an early supporter of President-elect Donald Trump who has emerged as a top energy adviser, has argued for doing just that, telling Bloomberg BNA Dec. 28 that consolidating the two agencies would be more efficient.

The changes also would provide a platform for Republicans seeking to rein in what they consider regulatory overreach, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s oversight of the Clean Air Act. The report would include recommended changes “to existing law related to Federal rules, regulations, statutes, and court decisions affecting such programs and agencies that are inconsistent with the authorities of the Congress” under the Constitution.

Federal Workers, Compensation in Crosshairs

The procedural package mirrors past rules changes the Republican-led chamber pushed through in 2011, 2013, and 2015, all designed to curtail regulatory burdens in any new legislation. But targeting programs and even entire agencies is new and reflects an emboldened Republican Party that now controls the House, Senate and in just over two weeks, the White House.

In a move that McCarthy, the GOP leader, sought to minimize as an experimental “pilot” program, the approved rules revive a long-dormant “Holman Rule” to allow members to offer floor amendments to appropriations bills that target federal personnel within a federal agency or department or even cutting federal employee compensation.

McCarthy told reporters just hours before the vote on the rules package that bringing back the Holman Rule, which emerged in the 19th century but was abandoned in the early 1980s, would apply for just one year on an experimental basis.

McCarthy told reporters Jan. 3 that reviving the Holman rule “actually empowers individuals”—congressional representatives—in providing greater accountability in the federal government. It was his suggestion, he said, to “only put it in for one year” in the rules package, which would mean it would expire in January 2018.

The majority leader declined to specify which federal agencies might be targeted. “I think all agencies should be held accountable and tested … and this is an avenue to allow them to do it,” McCarthy said.

Obama Agenda Rejected?

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said voters had rejected the pro-regulatory path pursued by President Barack Obama and that Republicans planned to make good on their pledge to roll back environmental and other regulations they argue impede job growth.

“We see things differently,” Sessions told colleagues on the floor, and “that’s why you’re going to see, not only in the rules package … but by the way that we do business here in the House of Representatives, that we look at regulations differently.” House Republicans will be pushing to rein in agencies to follow “the intent of the law, not the intent of a regulator,” Sessions said.

“For the first time in a long time, we will have a president-elect, yes, Donald Trump, who will, I believe, work with the United States Congress,” Sessions said.

House Democrats, who had little hope of beating back the procedural changes, said reverting to the Holman Rule allows congressional members to unfairly target civil service employees. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the change was meant “to make it easier for the majority to circumvent the current legislative process in order to fire or cut the pay of federal employees.”

“It undermines civil service protections. It goes back to the 19th century,” when such authority was misused to target specific federal workers, Hoyer said. “Republicans have consistently made our hardworking federal employees scapegoats, in my opinion, for lack of performance of the federal government itself.”

James Goodwin, senior policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform, said he remains skeptical that a Republican-led effort to consolidate agencies or departments can succeed. “This is kind of like clothing fashion, the idea of combining and streamlining and putting agencies together to get at the bureaucracy goes in and out of fashion,” he said.

“This is one of those things that sounds good in a half-hearted press release, but it’s not going to happen. It took something like 9/11 to re-jigger agencies—you need a real shock” or event such as the 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S., he said, for such a large-scale change to be made.

Budgetary Change for Land Transfer

The rules package also includes a section that would allow public lands to be conveyed back to the states, local governments, or tribes without having to account for the budgetary impact of such a conveyance. Under the new House procedures, that move wouldn’t be seen as “providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.”

House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told Bloomberg BNA that eliminating any consideration of cost for such land transfers would mean the federal government would “be giving away land [and] you could be getting no return on the land.”

“I think that [was] put in there specifically to expedite what has been a movement” by Republicans “to try to return as much federal land to the states and the counties,” he said, a move generally opposed by many Democrats and environmental groups.

To contact the reporters on this story: Dean Scott in Washington, D.C., at DScott@bna.com; Rachel Leven in Washington, D.C., at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.