EPA Budget Mostly Messaging, But Not Quite Dead on Arrival

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 Rachel Leven and Dean Scott

Congress is unlikely to make a reality the steep cuts in environmental programs proposed by the Trump administration March 16, lawmakers from both parties told Bloomberg BNA.

But the fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint released by President Donald Trump holds more weight than just messaging, lawmakers said. The proposal does give a sense of where the Republican-held Congress is headed—less money for environmental programs and more money for defense programs.

The administration proposed to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding for fiscal 2018 by roughly 31 percent from enacted fiscal 2017 continuing resolution levels.

If that’s not going to happen, the question becomes: How much less will the cuts be?

Lawmakers have different answers.

“I think we’re going to see a repetition of Ronald Reagan,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told Bloomberg BNA.

The Republican Reagan, after his 1980 election, “originally proposed the elimination of the Department of Energy, the [targeting] of the Superfund program, essentially across the entire range of energy and environmental issues, and he was pushed back very hard. Not just by Democrats, but by Republicans.”

“And in the end,” Markey said, “his retreat was almost absolute.”

Even some House Republican leaders were less than forceful in endorsing all of Trump’s proposed deep cuts in discretionary programs.

“Do I think we can cut spending and get waste out of government? Absolutely,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters. “Where and how and what numbers, that’s something we’ll be figuring out as time goes on. This is just the very beginning of that process.”

While other agencies also would see cuts under the proposal, none would be hit as hard as the EPA.

Too Skinny a Budget?

The EPA under Trump’s blueprint would be funded at $5.7 billion, down from $8.2 billion; the budget says that would mean roughly 3,200 fewer agency employees in fiscal 2018. The overall proposal, also widely referred to as the “skinny budget,” reflects complaints shared by the administration and Republicans: that the EPA under the Obama administration has exceeded its authority in its climate change priorities and other actions.

Despite Republican control of the White House and both the House and the Senate, members in both chambers said March 16 Trump’s budget cuts aren’t a slam dunk. Many on both sides of the aisle still see the president’s budget proposal as more messaging than reality.

“From my experience when the last administration sent budgets, they were looked at as a starting point,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), told reporters. “No disrespect to anybody, but I think that’ll be the case here, too,” said Amodei, a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

Republicans on the respective House and Senate appropriations panels said that there has to be a balanced approach to funding the EPA and other discretionary spending, even as many Republicans generally favor cuts.

“If it’s [the cuts] in some of the regulatory or climate change areas, that probably is sustainable,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, told reporters regarding proposed EPA cuts. “On the other hand, I think the water and tribal grant monies are very important.”

Republican Concern Over EPA Cuts

But figuring out what those programs are will likely take some work. Different lawmakers will likely advocate to protect against funding cuts that are crucial to their specific communities.

For example, the budget proposal would eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, launched in 2010 to protect and restore what is the largest system of fresh surface water in the world. But several members from both parties, including Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), opposed the move at the Great Lakes Congressional Breakfast briefing March 16.

He argued that the money is vital for the water and economy. Gibbs is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) took aim at another part of the budget proposal. At a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment hearing, Shimkus said that more federal federal funding should be spent on drinking water infrastructure. Shimkus is chairman of the subcommittee.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Environment, Interior and Related Agencies, also said the senator wants to ensure that programs like the Alaska Native Villages Water Program are shielded from potential cuts.

Of course, some Republicans held that significantly cutting the EPA would be appropriate, such as Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). He also echoed the sentiment of many members the day of Trump’s budget release, telling Bloomberg BNA that he would need to look more closely at the proposed “skinny budget.”

Asserting Congress’ Role

Members of both parties touted Congress’ role—the next stage in the funding determination process—as more than symbolic. Democrats came out hard against the top-line numbers. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) called it a “starvation budget.”

Republicans in the appropriations process vowed to give the president’s proposal a hard look. They also at times stressed their independence from this proposal.

“As we all know, the devil is in the details and we have yet to see those details,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Environment, Interior, and Related Agencies, told Bloomberg BNA in an emailed statement.

Calvert said Congress will work “with the president to find savings as well as fund programs vital to our nation, including honoring our treaty obligations to our friends in the tribal community.”

Murkowski, Calvert’s counterpart on appropriations in the Senate, flatly said that she “cannot support” many of the proposed cuts such as those to water and wastewater programs.

“Over the past several years we have already made significant progress streamlining agencies like the EPA while retaining funding for its core mission and functions—particularly basic infrastructure,” Murkowski said in a statement. “I expect that to continue.”

Dead on Arrival?

For the Democrats’ part, they remained optimistic, regardless of Republican rhetoric now. The congressional process will likely lead to funding for FY 2018 with less severe cuts for the EPA and other environment programs than initially proposed, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) told reporters March 15. Udall is the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Environment, Interior and Related Agencies.

But there are still many Republicans who say Trump’s plan is not destined for failure.

“I don’t know, but if we don’t take it seriously, why go through this process,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told Bloomberg BNA.

“The budget outline has been sent up and we should take a serious look at it. That’s our responsibility,” Bishop said. “If we just declare it dead on arrival now, then why go through the charade of doing it?”

—With assistance from Brian Dabbs, Amena Saiyid and David Schultz in Washington.

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

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

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

Request Environment & Energy Report