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By Sam Pearson
The deep budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration for fiscal year 2018 would leave more than a dozen small agencies in a quandary: keep quiet or speak out to tell the public why they should stay open.
While many larger agencies with Cabinet-level status, like the Labor Department and Environmental Protection agency, also saw steep proposed cuts in the White House’s “skinny budget” released March 16, more than a dozen independent agencies and public corporations were targeted for defunding. These entities also have leadership structures allowing for less direct control by the administration.
These agencies, which together received $2.8 billion in federal funding in fiscal year 2017, must balance how to talk to the public in a way that doesn’t antagonize the Trump administration or violate federal law restricting agency lobbying, and they have taken different approaches for doing so since the budget was announced.
Of the 19 agencies proposed for elimination, nine declined to comment on the plan or referred requests to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Ten have weighed in on the budget proposal.
Of those, nine argued in favor of continued operation, and one agency, Alaska’s Denali Regional Commission, acknowledged the budget but pledged it couldn’t say more until it confers with OMB “for further guidance on the next steps for the agency.”
The dilemma was evident at the Chemical Safety Board, one of the smallest agencies proposed to be cut, and one with minimal White House oversight. The board first referred inquiries to OMB before sharing a statement and posts to its social media accounts listing agency accomplishments. Board members also amplified the message on their own social media pages.
“The annoying part of it for me was there was no explanation given, no rationale,” John Bresland, who served as a board member and chairperson of CSB from 2002 to 2012, told Bloomberg BNA.
Bresland said industry organizations he visits around the world as a process safety consultant were “shocked” by the proposal. He speculated the White House may have targeted CSB, which received $11 million in the current fiscal year, as part of “a philosophical point of view” against government programs.
Other agencies, like the Interior Department, have seen “rogue” employees post unauthorized messages to social media accounts or make anonymous accounts to spread messages contrary to Trump administration policy. Independent agencies—some of which are run by boards or commissions—have had more latitude to defend their value in the past because they are influenced less by the White House.
Staff members at agencies targeted for elimination “are pretty hamstrung by what they can and can’t say,” Liz Purchia, who served as communications director at the EPA in the Obama administration.
Purchia said the lack of clarity around the budget shows the Trump administration’s poor management and lack of planning.
“We see that they don’t have a strong ability to manage their own message and what they’re saying from one office to the next,” Purchia said.
By law, agencies cannot use federal funds to ask the public to lobby Congress, such as to preserve their funding. But agencies can paint a positive message of what they do for the public. Voters could then conclude the agencies shouldn’t be shut down.
OMB issued a memo to agencies March 17 to limit their communication on the budget.
OMB spokesman John Czwartacki said in a statement at the time the move was no different than actions taken under the Obama and Bush administrations.
An OMB spokesman declined to elaborate on an official statement on the memo, but CSB did not receive the document, spokeswoman Hillary Cohen told Bloomberg BNA in an email. The instructions appear to be more relevant to larger agencies, instructing them not to discuss account-level details not disclosed in the “skinny budget.”
Much of the budget proposal came from a report last year by the Heritage Foundation, “Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017,” the Washington Post reported last month. But that document says nothing about the fate of the CSB. The Heritage Foundation didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Michael Wright, health and safety director at the United Steelworkers union, told Bloomberg BNA the plan seemed poorly thought out. It seemed like “somebody went through a list of which agencies were in the federal government and said, ‘I haven’t heard of that one, that doesn’t sound important.’”
More broadly, Trump adviser Stephen Bannon has called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” which he says creates taxes, regulations and unfair trade agreements. The CSB, though, does none of those things, but its budget and those of the other small agencies could come at the expense of other priorities.
Facing leadership problems, low staff morale and criticism from Congress in 2015, some former board members proposed merging the agency with the National Transportation Safety Board. After the departure of former Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso later that year, lawmakers have stepped back from close scrutiny of the agency.
Anna Fendley, legislative director at the United Steelworkers, told Bloomberg BNA Congress’ criticism was “very targeted at the now former chairman,” not a broader opposition to the CSB.
The agencies may not have much to fear. Key lawmakers have made it clear they plan to go their own way on the budget.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, which oversees the CSB’s funding, declined to comment on the CSB but noted in a statement earlier this month Murkowski said Congress will make its own decisions.
Bresland said the CSB has time this year to explain to appropriators the value they bring, which seems to be happening already.
“Ultimately, the budget document was pretty much just a glorified press release,” Purchia said. “It didn’t actually include a lot of detail. It’s a lot of talk, but I think in reality, things won’t be as drastic as they’re proposing.”
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