In Budget Battle, GOP May Choose to Protect EPA Climate Funds After All

Insiders predict that GOP leaders may compromise on the environmental front to avoid the government shutdowns that sullied the party's image in the 1990s

senator james inhofe
Image: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okl.). Credit: Inhofe Press Office

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WASHINGTON—During this tenuous time when dozens of House Republicans and coal-state Democrats continue to castigate her agency as evil incarnate, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson seems to be heeding words of encouragement proffered by Rep. Norman Dicks.

“Don’t be intimidated,” the Washington Democrat told her during a recent appropriations hearing. “Do your job.”

Jackson appeared as unflappable, patient and engaged as ever as senators and representatives doled out criticisms, quips and kudos during five total hours of intense questioning that began in a Senate committee last Wednesday afternoon and wrapped up with a House subpanel Thursday afternoon.

Both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee had invited Jackson to their respective one-two punch of hearings to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 budget.

Unsurprisingly, however — with the federal government potentially on the verge of a shutdown — talk turned to the tumultuousness of unfinished business on the 2011 fiscal year budget.

House Republicans affiliated with the tea party movement riled up their moderate brethren and most Democrats in both chambers by targeting the EPA with a measure they approved Feb. 19 that whacks $61 billion from the budget year that plays out Sept. 30. GOP amendments adding up to $3 billion would pare the EPA’s budget by one-third — the deepest cuts to any federal agency — and impair its ability to deploy the Clean Air Act to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Democrats such as Dicks, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, and California Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the environment committee, have vowed to fend off efforts to hamstring the EPA’s authority to protect the environment and the public’s health.

“I think what you’re doing today in terms of climate change is absolutely essential,” Dicks told Jackson at Thursday’s hearing, adding that denying global warming’s existence is “preposterous.”

His comments echoed what Boxer told Jackson the previous afternoon.

“We have seen that a healthy environment and a thriving economy go hand in hand,” she said. “Since the year Congress enacted the Clean Air Act, U.S. GDP has risen by 207 percent.  Healthier air for our families leads to greater productivity and greater earning power, because if you can’t breathe, you can’t work or go to school.”

EPA Could Be Spared from GOP Budget Cuts

While green groups continue to hammer on House Republicans, Capitol Hill insiders predict that GOP leaders are willing to compromise on the environmental front to avoid the shutdowns that sullied the party’s image in the mid-1990s.

In other words, the EPA could well be spared from any drastic cutbacks.

Signs first emerged last week when Senate Democrats rejected the maligned GOP proposal. Then, Republicans agreed to remove all of the “anti-EPA” riders during negotiations to produce a last-minute, two-week emergency spending bill to fund the government through March 18. The temporary measure slices $4 billion from the entire federal budget.

And that stopgap action is likely to provide the blueprint for whatever compromise emerges as Vice President Joe Biden assumes the role of mediator with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to figure out what trims are reasonable over the next six-plus months.

“Those EPA riders don’t cut the deficit,” Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection told SolveClimate News in an interview. “They do nothing except get the Democrats mad and leave the moderate Republicans wondering what is going on.”

“If the issue is to reduce the size and scope of the federal budget, EPA is just not a big cost driver,” continued DiPeso, vice president for policy and communications. “If the goal is to balance the budget, you’re not going to get there by cutting the EPA.”

The riders became part of the landscape for two reasons, he noted. One, representatives receiving significant funding from oil and coal interests feel their states’ economies are threatened by EPA’s carbon control efforts. And two, the tea party has expanded the number of ideologues in Congress and exacerbated their libertarian slant.

Combine those two, he said, and you come up with lots of freshman with no experience in government who viewed the 2011 continuing resolution on the budget as a chance to make a loud statement to their base.

The wild card in the Biden negotiations is finding out if Boehner is capable of restraining what DiPeso refers to as “the overwrought members of his caucus.”

“Biden has been given the assignment of rushing into the burning building and trying to pull out legislation,” DiPeso said. “With his experience … he knows the art of the deal.”

Anti-EPA Bill Gains Democratic Co-Sponsors

Even if Democrats and moderate Republicans manage to keep anti-EPA riders out of the 2011 continuing resolution, some legislators are still pursuing proposals to put the kibosh on the agency.

To add to last week’s budget commotion, Republicans Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan in the House and Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma in the Senate decided to formally introduce legislation they initially floated as a draft bill Feb. 2.

What’s called the “Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011” gained traction now that it has garnered at least two Democratic co-sponsors. Reps. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, came on board last week.

In short, Upton, the newly named chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Inhofe, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, have designs on permanently halting Jackson’s agency from reining in heat-trapping gases from large stationary sources such as power plants and industrial facilities.

Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who co-authored the cap-and-trade bill the House passed almost two years ago, called the Upton-Inhofe bill “an affront to science.”

“It exempts the nation’s largest polluters from regulation at the expense of public health and energy security,” said Waxman, ranking member of the committee Upton now leads. “This proposal may be good for Koch Oil but it would gut the landmark Clean Air Act and prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from addressing the enormous threat posed by carbon pollution.”

Members of Boxer’s environment committee issued equally vehement statements about the bill.

“It’s simple, this bill would undermine the Clean Air Act in order to protect polluters, not people,” said Sen. Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee on Children’s Health and Environmental Responsibility.

“The Supreme Court and the best climate science compelled the Environmental Protection Agency to act and protect the health and welfare of our citizens. Legislation to derail that effort is highly misguided.”

Democrats: What’s Not to Like About the Clean Air Act?

At the macro-level, Democrats grasp why Republicans fear the EPA’s expanded use of the Clean Air Act. But they are puzzled why the GOP would choose to try to whittle away the federal deficit, which is tipping toward $1.4 trillion, on the back of an agency that in its highest year of funding, 2010, topped out with $10.3 billion in funding.

And they also don’t understand why an act that is popular among the public, has huge health benefits and generates jobs would be under the knife.

Jackson and the Democrats attending the two hearings where the EPA head testified last week repeatedly referred to polls indicating that a majority of Americans support the agency’s efforts to control carbon dioxide and other air pollutants via the Clean Air Act.

For instance, an early March bipartisan poll released by the American Lung Association reveals that 75 percent of voters support the EPA setting tougher standards on specific air pollutants, including mercury, smog and carbon dioxide, and establishing higher fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks.

As well, 68 percent of voters oppose congressional action impeding the EPA from updating clean air standards generally and 64 percent oppose congressional efforts to stop the EPA from updating standards on carbon dioxide.

EPA-tabulated health benefits of the Clean Air Act show that in 2010 alone it saved 160,000 lives and prevented millions of cases of bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Hearing participants also referred to recent reports such as the one issued by Ceres, a network of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups, and the University of Massachusetts.

Researchers reported in February that the Clean Air Act standards EPA is preparing to set for mercury, soot, smog and other harmful air pollutants from power plants will create nearly 1.5 million jobs in the next five years. The jobs center around installing modern pollution controls and constructing new power plants.

As well, the United States is a world leader in the environmental technologies industry, generating hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues and exports.

‘Very Ideological and Very Partisan’ Debate Over EPA

During the appropriations subcommittee hearing Thursday, Democratic Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia irked his Republican cohorts by referring to their $61 billion measure as a “dump truck of a bill” because it was loaded up with 22 amendments designed to restrict across-the-board EPA programs through September.

Rep. Steven LaTourette said the bill was a result of “pent-up frustration” on the part of Republicans worried about mounting debt. The national debt has risen above $14 trillion.

“I agree a lot of stuff got piled on,” the Ohio Republican said. “But it was the decision by the previous majority … to dump this thing in our laps. That was the dump truck.”

The Democratic-majority Congress did indeed punt on its fiscal responsibilities last year by delaying action on budget appropriations. In December, Democrats left themselves vulnerable to Republican politicking by opting to approve a temporary spending bill that operated the government at fiscal 2010 levels through early March. That action, of course, came weeks after the GOP became more strident about balancing the budget after defeating so many Democrats during the November election.

During the February House debate on the bill to extend that continuing resolution, LaTourette offered up an amendment that would have sliced dollars from all federal agencies equally. However, it never came up for a vote.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma voiced concerns about the “very ideological and very partisan” divide that is erupting over the role of the EPA.

“I can assure you the political backlash is real and has real consequences,” Cole said to Jackson. “I think we’re going to continue to have clashes … unless we can find some cooperative way to move forward.”

In a post-hearing interview, Moran told SolveClimate News that coal-belt legislators — not representatives such as Cole — are intent on making the EPA impotent. Preventing the industry from regulating greenhouse gas emissions is not only a public health issue, he said, but it also harms industries that are begging for clarity.

“It’s a democratic process,” he said. “We need to get a majority elected to allow EPA to clean up the air.”

“We’re not going to shoot the people who disagree,” Moran concluded. “But we are going to argue with them.”