The Continuing Resolution Lets Environmental Protection Continue

Late Monday night, the actual text of the spending agreement for the remainder of this fiscal year became public. While President Obama and House Speaker Boehner had reached an agreement in principle with much fanfare just before midnight last Friday night, the details were still being worked out several days later.  It will take some more time to fully understand the impacts.

But enough is known now to reach some overarching conclusions.  First, the bill, taken as a whole, represents a victory for the environment and for the environmental movement.  Most important, none of the riders restricting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made it into the bill.  President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Reid deserve enormous credit for that result, which was by no means guaranteed.  Second, that said, some individual provisions and budget cuts will do environmental harm.  Third, as should go without saying, the process that led to this agreement is no way to run a government.  And fourth, as ugly and prolonged as the process was, it is merely prologue to the difficult battles ahead.  

In what ways was the bill an environmental victory?  Environmental protection emerged intact, if not entirely unscathed.  To get down to fundamentals, the final version of the spending bill – the Continuing Resolution, or CR – treats environmental protection as a legitimate public concern (and therefore as a legitimate government activity).  You’d think that would be a given at this point in history, but the House version of the CR, which the Republican Leadership and the Tea Party had pushed through in February and have been pressing relentlessly ever since, treated environmental protection more like some kind of tumor – to be cut out to the extent possible, and pelted with efforts to limit the functioning of whatever remnants were left.

In practical terms, being treated as a legitimate activity means that environmental programs will not bear a wildly disproportionate share of the reductions in federal spending, and that programs will not be cut as part of an ideological crusade to eliminate particular activities.  That contrasts with what the House Republicans had been pushing – for example, cutting the budget of the EPA by almost a third in mid-year, and targeting programs related to climate change, including ones merely designed to gather data on emissions.  

Instead, EPA will see a cut only half as large, with much of that cut coming from funds that pay for state and local drinking water and sewage projects.  Those funds are sorely needed, as investments in clean surface waters and safe drinking water are critical to public health, but they don’t immediately affect the ability of EPA to carry out its basic tasks.  It’s impossible to know right now exactly what the impact of the cuts will be because the spending bill doesn’t specify money for each and every program and activity at EPA; rather, in most cases, it sets out dollar amounts for broader categories.  EPA will have to make those programmatic choices, which will be described in an operational plan that will take some time to put together.   The precise impact on state and local projects is also hard to assess at this point because it depends on the amount of money paid back to the funds from past projects as well as the new money allocated to them.

Similarly, around half the money was restored for research on energy efficiency and renewables – another target of the conservatives’ ideological crusade, despite the need to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, get control of gasoline prices, reduce the environmental impact of power generation, free up economic resources through efficiency and bolster the green energy business.

But even more significant than what happened to spending is what became of the anti-environmental riders.  As I’ve written before, the riders, most of them added in a kind of mob attack on EPA on the House floor, would have blocked EPA from carrying out numerous aspects of current law, limiting protections for public health, air and water.  The Republican leadership, by all accounts, fought to keep these provisions in the CR right up to the final days of negotiation.   These riders wouldn’t have saved the government a single cent, but they would have imposed costs on those suffering from the additional pollution.  They were bad policy and bad governance – the provisions were added without any review of what their actual impact would be and with little debate.  With rider votes on the House floor coming as frequently as every two minutes – votes are taken as a series after hours of debate on many different proposals – Members of Congress sometimes couldn’t even be sure what each vote was about.      

So, what finally happened to these pernicious provisions?  Environmental groups made the riders the central focus of their opposition to the House bill.  President Obama and Majority Leader Reid, with increasing force and clarity as the negotiations dragged on, made it clear that the riders preventing EPA from carrying out the law would not be part of a final bill.  As a result, all 15 of the anti-EPA riders were dropped from the bill.  (One of those riders, making it harder for citizens to sue to enforce environmental laws, would have affected other agencies as well.) 

That’s a major victory.  Allowing the riders to become law would not only have blocked the specific protections that were under attack, it would have given a green light to future efforts to hamstring EPA.  The extended battle also made it clear that the public does not support efforts to block environmental protection.    

Unfortunately, three of the four riders affecting other agencies did make it into the bill.  Those riders will threaten the recovery of endangered gray wolvesmake it harder to protect wilderness and make it harder to prevent over-fishing.  (Another misguided provision – not a rider under our definition – blocking current plans to set up a climate service, modeled on the National Weather Service, also got into the final bill.)  Those are losses that will have real impacts.  But at least, as appropriations riders, they are only in effect for the remainder of this fiscal year, and environmental groups will fight to prevent them from being renewed.  (The wolf rider is the exception to that; it is a permanent change.)

And the environmental fights will continue.  The Republican budget framework for next year, released by Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI), targets all domestic programs like those to protect the environment – not only to balance the budget, but out of antipathy to the very notion of government programs.  And the Republican leadership has already signaled that they will be trying to tack the anti-environment riders on to other legislative vehicles.  That will be just as illegitimate as the recent effort was.  If Members want to keep pushing for these misguided provisions, they ought to be subject to scrutiny at hearings and considered individually, not rammed through on must-pass bills in an effort to get them into law despite public opposition. 

What the Tea Party movement doesn’t seem to understand is that the Constitution doesn’t grant them control over the entire government just because some of their members won the most recent election.  Each of those new members is supposed to have one vote, not a stranglehold on all government activity; and each got elected to represent one district:  their notion that they are the embodiment of American public opinion has no basis in polling results, political theory or law.  The Tea Party attitude, which led to the protracted budget impasse, has more in common with the “divine right of kings” – with the king ordained to literally embody the national interest – than with the American Constitution.  Brinksmanship is no way to run a country.  Our system of government was designed to temper political faddism and fanaticism and to produce reasonable compromises, not to empower ideologues.

That is a lesson the right wing will no doubt have to be taught again as the debt ceiling and fiscal 2012 budget and spending bills move through the Congress.  Back in 1995, the last time the right felt it had been granted control over the entire American government, the first battles the House Republican leadership lost were over anti-EPA riders.  That part of history has now repeated itself. 

The open question is how many more times efforts to limit environmental protection will have to be fought off before the public gets what it wants – a government that spends its time trying to figure out the best way to solve real problems instead of engaging in ideological fights to the death.  This ideological warfare has been abetted by Republicans who voted for the House version of the CR – and that was every Republican in the House and the Senate – despite qualms about the measure.  Maybe the outcome of this budget battle will make them think twice about going down that path again.    


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