With a lot of help from Republicans in the House, the Environmental Protection Agency is becoming more synonymous with government regulation in Washington than with clean air and water. That's not a great tag for the agency, which faces an uphill battle with Congress to keep its funding intact.
Republicans advanced a $27.5 billion spending bill Thursday that would cut about $2.1 billion in total federal spending, including $1.5 billion from the EPA's current $8.7 billion in annual budget alone. But the most far-reaching part of the bill has less to do with spending than with giving Congress the upper hand in environmental politics. [Check out political cartoons on the federal budget and deficit.]
"This bill is not so much a spending bill as a wish list for special interests," Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran said Thursday at a panel meeting, referring to what he called a "dump truck" of provisions in the bill that would limit the EPA and other agencies' ability to regulate the private sector on environmental matters.
In addition to proposed spending cuts, Republican appropriators also want to place a cap on the agency's personnel at the 2010 level, which according to the appropriations committee are the lowest since 1992. But what has Democrats and Republicans most at odds are the provisions dealing with the EPA's authority on climate issues. Indeed, the bill will dock funding for climate change programs by $83 million, or 22 percent. And there's a rider—a piece of policy legislation attached to the spending bill—that would prevent the EPA from regulating carbon emissions for power plants and refineries for a year. "It's dramatic," says Scott Slesinger, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading conservation group. "Worse than making deep budget cuts, the bill is chock full of gratuitous policy riders that are unprecedented in number and scope." [Read our new Energy Intelligence blog.]
One problem for the EPA is that even for some in the Republican party who support the work of the agency and would like to see climate change addressed, the political winds just don't justify the spending. Another is that the EPA's actions have become a constitutional issue, as members of Congress, like Kentucky Republican Rep. Hal Rogers, depict the agency as the "poster child" of executive overreach. According to Rogers, who says that unlike others in his party he's no climate change naysayer, the bill is more about sending a message to the agency than about climate. "We're for protecting the environment like everyone else. We just think the agency has gone way overboard and beyond their authority," he says. "We want them to abide by the law and live within the authority that Congress has given to them."
Republicans, in the past, have labeled the EPA's proposed rules on greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act as a backdoor way around the failure of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress in 2009, which was intended by its supporters as a way to address climate change. According to Manik Roy, vice president of federal government outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, despite what some members of Congress say, the EPA is simply following orders according to Congress' authorization of the Clean Air Act and subsequent Supreme Court rulings which upheld the EPA's authority over greenhouse gases.
Moran told reporters Thursday that Democrats are "going to have to fight" to keep Republicans from using riders to block EPA's rules. During the budget showdown in the spring, Republicans were nearly able to leverage a ban on the EPA's power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide, but eventually lost that battle.
As this funding fight unfolds, the EPA also looms as a possible issue in the 2012 presidential election. Already Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann, an avowed climate skeptic who is widely seen as having entered the top tier of candidates, has come out strong against the EPA as the "job-killing organization of America." She even suggested that she'd try to abolish it if in office. [See our cartoons on the 2012 GOP field.]
But even with a more moderate candidate like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has said he thinks climate change should be addressed, the stakes for the EPA could still be significant, especially if the issue of the agency's budget is the focus. Any potential Republican administration would be less likely than President Obama to back the EPA's funding and regulatory power. In that case, the debate over the EPA and climate change would not be whether climate change is a problem, but what the EPA should to do about it, says Roy.
Still, even in the face of scrutiny, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson rolled out an additional interstate pollution rule on coal plants under the Clean Air Act Thursday and is poised to continue to implement rules on climate change as planned.
- Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?
- See who in the GOP is in and out in 2012.
- Check out political cartoons on the federal budget and deficit.
Corrected on 07/10/11: A previous version of this article omitted the first mention of Kentucky Republican Rep. Hal Rogers and the identification for Manik Roy, vice president of federal government outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.