Congress to Pruitt: We’re Not Cutting EPA Budget to Trump’s Levels

House Republicans say they’ll protect programs that affect their districts. That’s a lot of the EPA’s work.

Scott Pruitt testified on Capitol Hill about the EPA budget
Republicans and Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee were clear that Congress will not pass a budget that cuts EPA's funding by 31 percent and eliminates nearly 50 of its programs, as EPA chief Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration proposed. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Members of the congressional committee responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget—Republican and Democrat alike—made clear Thursday they have no intention of approving the White House’s proposal to slash the agency’s spending.

In a hearing, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt defended the Trump administration’s budget plan for the first time on Capitol Hill, insisting that the agency he leads could fulfill its mission under a plan that cuts its budget more than any other federal agency’s.

On climate change, the committee members divided along party lines on whether they supported the Trump administration’s decision to exit the Paris accord. Pruitt, who was a chief proponent of the move, claimed that President Donald Trump would  “continue engagement” on the subject. But most of the hearing focused on other issues, with members of both parties driving home the point that Congress will not pass a budget that cuts the EPA’s funding by 31 percent and eliminates nearly 50 of the agency’s programs.

“You are going to be the first EPA administrator who has come before this committee in many years who actually gets more than he asks for,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). That theme was echoed by several of his colleagues on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. Like other committee members, Cole noted the need for the EPA’s role in addressing the environmental issues that his own constituents face.

For Cole, the issue was large proposed cuts in state and tribal assistance and in water pollution control.

Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) balked at the idea of cutting the Great Lakes Initiative. To avoid forcing either Pruitt or Trump to bear the brunt of his criticism, he began to refer to the budget by the name of Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman. “Simply put, the Mulvaney budget appears to largely remove the federal government as a partner in all of our efforts to manage and to Great Lakes,” Joyce said.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), criticized the White House plan to reduce by 83 percent Diesel Emission Reduction grants, which he said are essential to improving his state’s air quality.

“You have a tough job here today,” Calvert said to Pruitt. He noted that the EPA, in the crosshairs of the Trump administration’s plan to shift $54 billion from domestic to military spending, would see its budget cut $2.4 billion under the proposal. Calvert said that although he supported additional funding for the military, taking the entire amount out of non-defense spending in one fiscal year was “an untenable proposition.”

“The budget proposes to significantly reduce, or terminate, programs that are vitally important to each member on this subcommittee,” Calvert said.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) criticized the decision to exit the Paris accord, but true to the theme of the day, brought it back to her own constituents.

“Climate change to us is very real. It’s not an environmental platitude,” she said. Maine lobstermen, she said, “look at me with fear in their eyes because we are watching the migration of lobsters, as we’ve seen the disappearance of shrimping. This is important to their identity; it’s important economically. I can’t go home to people and say this isn’t happening. I can’t go home and say ocean acidification isn’t happening.”

Referring to Pruitt’s home state and his well-document close relationship with its biggest industry, Pingree said, “I know it’s different in Oklahoma, where you have the fossil fuel industry in your backyard,” she said. “But I represent a state in the tailpipe of the fossil fuel industry.”

Pruitt noted that Trump, in his speech announcing the U.S. exit from the Paris climate agreement, said he hoped to renegotiate it—a notion that other world leaders have rejected. “He said he wanted to continue engagement on this issue,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt said he had begun that process at last week’s meeting of G7 environmental ministers (which ended with Pruitt leaving after only a few hours and the U.S. not signing on to the group’s statements on climate change). “I began the process of bilateral discussions with respect to continued U.S. leadership on CO2,” Pruitt said.

In defense of the agency’s plan to repeal the Obama administration’s most important climate change regulation, the Clean Power Plan, Pruitt said that Congress had not given the EPA a mandate to regulate carbon dioxide from stationary sources—power plants. (That assertion ignores court rulings that have upheld the Obama-era EPA’s interpretation that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.) The rules, stayed by the Supreme Court, are under litigation; the agency has already started to rework them.

Pruitt spent most of the hearing promising to work with members of Congress on the concerns they raised—about endocrine disrupting chemicals, Puget Sound pollution, the Great Lakes, Superfund sites, and more—and on how the EPA could continue to meet the objectives of the programs that the White House was proposing to cut.

“I believe we can fulfill the mission of our agency with a trim budget,” Pruitt said.

Sierra Club spokesman Adam Beitman summed up the hearing in a sardonic Tweet: “Congress to Pruitt: How will you protect X while cutting funding for it? @EPAScottPruitt: It’s so important to protect X, thank you.”  

But Cole, Pruitt’s fellow Oklahoman, who agrees with him that Trump was right to leave the Paris agreement, said he should not expect Congress to accept the dramatic cuts to the EPA that the White House envisions.

“The final decision rests here,” Cole said. “The Constitution’s pretty clear on that. It’s important that we have the president’s priorities, but at the end of the day, Congress will make the decision.”

As the two-hour hearing closed, Calvert interrupted Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) when he began pressing Pruitt on specific programs tagged for elimination, like the Energy Star efficiency program, Natural Gas Star voluntary program for methane reduction, and others Kilmer said would help address “the generational burden of climate change.”

“We’re going to work with you on those,” Calvert told Kilmer. Then, looking at Pruitt but speaking to his Democratic colleague, the chairman said, “He has to defend his budget. But we’re going to work with you.”