WASHINGTON—Lately, the amount of time House Republicans have dedicated to crying over spilled milk would make even the casual observer suspicious.
Fortunately, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is savvy enough to detect that particular brand of crocodile tears unique to Capitol Hill.
However, she still might have to consider changing her title to chief EPA mythbuster if representatives keep using congressional hearings as a forum to boo-hoo to her about cooked-up regulations they know are fallacies yet continue to insist her agency is preparing to promulgate.
Though she sometimes cracks a knowing smile from the witness chair, Jackson is always her gracious, measured and down-to-earth self when she patiently explains to one committee or another that the Environmental Protection Agency does not now — and will not in the future — regulate cow flatulence, farm dust or milk spilled on dairy farms.
Those familiar with the hearing room-as-theater scenario in the nation's capital are accustomed to these sorts of ploys. But even hardened veterans are questioning why Republicans are persisting with this sideshow act when they have created a serious firestorm on center stage by trying to slash EPA's budget by one-third for the remainder of the fiscal year and threatening to prevent Jackson from deploying the Clean Air Act to curb emissions from heat-trapping gases.
Environmental law professor Pat Parenteau, who specializes in Congress and the EPA, is mortified by what he's seeing and hearing.
"Not only is it a circus, it's hypocrisy on stilts," he told SolveClimate News in an interview. "It reminds me of the kids in grade school who like to throw spitballs when the teacher's back is turned."
Parenteau thought Jackson summed up the GOP's antics perfectly when she told the House Agriculture Committee March 10: "These mischaracterizations are more than simple distractions. They prevent real dialogue to address our greatest problems."
Repetition Creates Truths
Republicans appear to be subscribing to the school of thought that if you repeat anything enough times, it becomes an accepted truth. Just as the "estate tax" morphed into the "death tax," they are relentless in trying to classify EPA as an activist agency.
What better way to depict that supposed overstepping than depicting EPA authorities as intent on killing American agriculture by forcing farmers to rein in dust loosened by a plow, milk accidentally dumped from a collection tank, or gas that cows emit from both ends?
Don Carr, a Washington-based spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, has heard all three of these fabrications over and over. Like other green organizations, his employer works to dispel lies that he calls "creations of agricultural lobbies that are fearful of any type of regulation."
During her recent committee appearances, Jackson has told her accusing questioners that EPA has not proposed a rule to regulate farm dust. At the March 10 hearing before the agriculture panel, she explained once again that a lobbyist created the oft-derided myth of a "cow tax" back in 2008. The nonpartisan FactCheck.org has exposed that as a sham, Jackson said.
A March 3 exchange with Rep. Jeff Flake was just one of the times Jackson has debunked the idea that the animal fats in spilled milk would be regulated just like leaked oil as part of the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure rule.
"What's next? Sippy cups in the House cafeteria?" the Arizona Republican asked Jackson sarcastically. "Is this not overreach?"
Jackson responded that while misinformation campaigns often accuse the EPA of overreaching, dairies are indeed off the hook when it comes to designing plans for milk spills. In this case, she said, one of the latest claims about spilled milk regulations appeared in a January 27 Wall Street Journal editorial that contained numerous inaccuracies. Mysteriously, she added, the newspaper has yet to publish a letter to the editor from her agency that corrects those errors.
A draft final exclusion exempting milk storage tanks from the spill rule is on file at the White House, Jackson said, and it will be acted upon this spring.
(Editor's Note: On April 12, EPA announced that is has formally exempted milk and milk product containers from broader oil spill regulations, known as the Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure rule. The measure has been in place since the 1970s.)
During a particularly nasty line of inquiry at the March 10 hearing, Illinois Republican Rep. Tim Johnson told Jackson that her agency has been "absolutely the poster child ... for usurpation of legislative authority."
When Johnson asked Jackson if she even had a background in agriculture, she deadpanned: "I eat food and I eat meat and I drink milk."
Both Carr and Parenteau pointed out that agribusiness is one of the least regulated entities on the environmental front. Corporate farms in the Corn Belt, they say, are terrified that the limited anti-pollution measures being asked of their Mid-Atlantic brethren via the Clean Water Act to help restore the Chesapeake Bay might be duplicated across the Midwest and Great Plains.
Getting Down to Business?
When Republicans gained a robust majority in the House after the November midterm election, everybody figured they'd be feeling their oats for a bit before perhaps buckling down to focus on jump-starting the economy and putting people back to work.
"No doubt they had to get that out of their system," Parenteau said. "But now they've indulged themselves and enough is enough. All they want to do is keep everybody in suspense about whether or not EPA is going to be around or not."
The contrast is exceedingly sharp between all of this sound-bite theater and an economic and environmental reality that demands sober and sensible leadership, he emphasized.
For instance, he pointed to a peer-reviewed report the agency released this month focusing on Clean Air Act benefits. Remarkably, it reveals that EPA regulations added to the books between 1990 and 2005 to whittle away at soot and smog pollutants will yield $2 trillion in benefits by 2020, mostly by preventing premature deaths.
"That report came out and pretty much disappeared," Parenteau said. "The public didn't hear any discussions and there were no oversight hearings. That's because House leadership doesn't want to make the connection to what EPA is accomplishing, and they ought to be called on that."
It's easier to bully the administrator about the minutiae of cow flatulence, he continued, than it is to have probing adult conversations about what slicing $3 billion from EPA's budget through the end of September would actually mean to the agency's ability to fulfill its mission.
Instead of spewing rhetoric, Parenteau asked, why isn't the House leadership asking the Congressional Budget Office or Government Accountability Office to execute a cost-benefit analysis showing the American public exactly what, if any, impact proposed budget cuts will have.
"Lisa Jackson is not afraid of hard questions," he said. "They could make these hearings a fair exchange by asking her directly whether environmental protection is strengthening or weakening the economy."
Since the 112th Congress convened in January, Jackson has spent an inordinate amount of time testifying before congressional committees and subcommittees. Seven appearances thus far in February and March, according to an EPA spokeswoman, outnumber that of any federal leader considered part of the president's cabinet.
Will Behavior Catch Up with GOP?
Many observers have pointed out that Republicans should be embarrassed by their efforts to erase an estimated $1.4 trillion deficit and $14 trillion in accumulated debt on the back of a relatively tiny agency such as the EPA with a budget that barely tips $10 billion in a flush year.
It's a sign, they say, of an extreme anti-regulatory and anti-environmental ideology.
Parenteau predicts that such venom could force Republicans to pay the piper at the voting booth in November 2012 if they continue counting on tactics designed to intimidate EPA officials and score political points.
If people don't see progress, he said, they are going to be asking Congress how playing repeated 'gotcha games' of cat and mouse with the EPA administrator are benefiting the environment and the public's health.
"As far as this being some sort of legitimate political strategy, I just don't get it," he said, adding that the public tires of these shenanigans quickly. "This kind of puerile behavior is not likely to win many votes beyond the hard core tea partiers."