WASHINGTON – Republicans on a key House panel are rejecting President Donald Trump’s proposal to drastically cut the Environmental Protection Agency.
Democrats and environmental groups say even the GOP’s new proposal doesn’t go far enough to preserve the agency’s funding.
After lengthy debate Tuesday evening, the House Appropriations Committee passed legislation that would reduce EPA spending by 6.5 percent — a far cry from the administration’s call to slash the agency’s budget by 31 percent.
The measure would save the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $300 million program that has bipartisan support from Minnesota to New York to target threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem.
But critics are sounding alarms that even the committee’s more modest EPA reductions, which still amount to $528 million, come on top of years of whittling the agency’s budget. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a member of the panel, told lawmakers that the EPA had been reduced by 30 percent over the past seven years when adjusting for inflation — and that it has 2,000 fewer employees.
“This bill will further undermine the agency’s ability to keep our families and communities healthy and protect our environment,” said McCollum, a St. Paul Democrat and the ranking member of the panel’s subcommittee overseeing interior and environmental appropriations.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was scheduled to visit the Twin Cities on Wednesday, where he will meet privately with Gov. Mark Dayton and also convene with stakeholders to discuss reversing the Waters of the U.S. Rule. The measure, approved under President Barack Obama, expanded the number of waterways protected under the Clean Air Act but has been criticized by agricultural and energy interests as being bureaucratic overreach.
Environmental spending likely will be among hotly debated issues in Congress as lawmakers work to pass a budget for the 2018 fiscal year, and Trump’s proposed cuts to EPA were the steepest of any agency.
Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of California, chairman of the environmental subcommittee, touted the bill’s provisions of $5 billion for water infrastructure, accelerated cleanups of Superfund and brownfield sites and scientific research funds. He said the bill also supports the administration’s priority of “reshaping” the workforce; the bill sets aside funds to encourage buyouts and voluntary separation agreements for EPA staff.
“We had to make some tough decisions,” Calvert said.
Lawmakers also praised the bill’s funding of programs to protect the Chesapeake Bay and other sensitive areas.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents EPA workers, spoke out against the bill this week. The Chicago regional office, which employees 900 environmental employees in Great Lakes states including Minnesota, recently received letters offering buyouts to 182 workers.
J. David Cox Sr., president of the national union, likened Trump’s initial proposal, as well as the one from the House Appropriations Committee, to someone saying they would cut off your entire leg, then cutting it off only below the knee.
“But they’ll be back next year to cut off the rest of the leg,” said Cox. “Then they’ll want to take the other leg, then they’ll want to start on the arms,” he said. “They’re crippling the agency.”
Margaret Levin, director of the Minnesota Sierra Club, said the organization is “deeply disturbed” by cuts to programs that address climate change and protect air, water and wildlife. Even before the proposed cuts, Levin added, the agency “was operating staff at a bare bones level.”
The EPA funds 11 percent of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s budget, according to Levin, paying for air and water quality monitoring and hazardous waste cleanup.
The Environmental Defense Action Fund announced a $1 million campaign this week to highlight the work of the EPA.
On Tuesday, McCollum unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would eliminate 16 partisan riders tacked onto the legislation, which she said undermined clean air and water standards. Among them was a provision that would authorize the EPA to withdraw the Waters of the U.S. Rule.
Calvert spoke in opposition, saying the provision was consistent with court decisions finding that the federal government’s jurisdiction wasn’t as broad as the rule had claimed.