Reality Check: Government Shutdown Still Looms

The sudden, if likely brief, "Era of Good Feelings" ushered in by the bipartisan budget agreement is obscuring some major battles yet to come - battles that will determine the state of environmental protection and could still lead to a budget showdown or even a government shutdown.

The budget deal, impressive though it is, removed only some of the major barriers to keeping the government running past Dec. 11, when current spending bills expire. The deal left undecided two key matters for the environment - how to allocate money among agencies and whether the spending bills will include anti-environment policy provisions, known as riders.

What the President and Congressional leaders agreed to was the top-level spending numbers for the next two years - how much to spend on domestic and military spending, in total. Now comes the hard work of deciding how to divvy up that domestic pot. Republican leaders in recent years have tried to allocate money in a way that starves environment and energy programs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Energy, among others, and even to defund some programs entirely.

The first step Republicans can take to keep those agencies on a starvation diet is both the most important and the most arcane. It happens when the Appropriations Committee decides how much money to give each area of spending covered by its subcommittees, known as 302(b) allocations. If Republican leaders underfund the pot of money that's available for EPA and DOI, then it's hard to provide much money for any aspect of those agencies' work. So expect fights on how much money is actually going to be spent on environmental programs.

An even bigger source of conflict over the next six weeks will be Republican efforts to block a wide range of environmental policies through riders. These are policy provisions that are added to must-pass spending bills but that have no effect whatsoever on spending levels. They're added to spending bills to try to hold the President (and the country) hostage - they say "if you want the government funded, then you have to agree to our ideological policy prescriptions."

The Republicans have a bumper crop of riders in mind this time around. (See list.) The riders would basically block each and every environmental advance the Administration has proposed (and sometimes future action as well) on endangered species, clean water, land protection, climate action, clean air - you name it.

The Administration - through its Statement of Administration Position on the legislation to codify the budget deal - and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have already said this week that they will not stand for riders. So the battle is joined, but it will take a few weeks to play out.

In recent years, the Administration and Congressional Democratic leaders have been quite successful in forcing the Republican leaders to give up on their environmental attacks in spending bills - and that's usually happened just as the clock has been about to run out on keeping the government open (or after that in the case of the shutdown).

It would be wonderful for the country if Republican leaders decided not to play that game of chicken this time around, but there's little reason to assume that they will desist. The ideologues who are the engine of the House majority and the Leadership, as well, have given no indication that they intend to move away from their "just say 'no'" approach to environmental policy.

As in the past, the President and his allies in Congress will have to stand up and defend basic environmental laws. They will do so, in what will likely be prolonged negotiations. No one should assume that the good news on the budget deal means smooth sailing from now until December. This is a deal on top-line budget numbers, not the "end of history."


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