On the Eve of an Historic Vote in the US Senate, A Reminder that Taxpayers Support the EPA

Tomorrow the US Senate will be voting on two different proposals for the federal budget that sketch out vastly different approaches to protecting public health, effective ways of investing taxpayer dollars and responses to public opinion.

One vote will test Senator’s appetites for the US House budget, which EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson herself said in testimony last week if enacted, "Big polluters would flout legal restrictions on dumping contaminants into the air, into rivers and onto the ground."

My colleague David Goldston recently described the House budget as the result of a “week-long carnival of destruction” for its inclusion of 19 ‘riders’ that outright block the EPA from carrying out its job of protecting public health, as well as for the 30% cuts to the agency’s budget which would if enacted prevent the EPA from doing nearly as much to protect public health.  

That's because the House budget included a number of sneak attacks on badly-needed updates to clean air safeguards including carbon, toxic and soot pollution.

As Goldston explains, “The House bill pretty much defined “over-reaching,” and the Senate leadership and the White House had made clear they would not go along.”

And so majority leader Reid is offering up another budget proposal for Senators to vote on, one that also cuts the budget but does so without cutting off vital protections from air and water pollution. We know from extensive reports on the value of the Clean Air Act that it has been an extraordinarily smart investment. The Clean Air Act has saved about 2 million American lives since 1990, at a cost that is a mere fraction of the bill’s value. As my colleague Laurie explains, by 2020 the Clean Air Act will have returned $30 for every dollar invested in cleaning up our air since 1990.  That’s a pretty strong return on investment.

The public clearly gets that the EPA is a good investment in our health and economy.

A major ORC International survey conducted for the Natural Resources Defense Council from January 27-20, 2011 found:

  • Americans want the EPA to do more, not less.  Almost two thirds of Americans (63 percent) say “the EPA needs to do more to hold polluters accountable and protect the air and water,” versus under a third (29 percent) who think the EPA already “does too much and places too many costly restrictions on businesses and individuals.”  Well under half of Republicans (44 percent), less than a third of Independents (29 percent) and under a fifth of Democrats (16 percent) think the EPA is going too far today.
  • Americans do not want Congress to kill the EPA’s anti-pollution updates.  Only 18 percent of Americans -- including fewer than a third of Republicans (32 percent) -- believe that “Congress should block the EPA from updating pollution safeguards,” after being told:  “Some members of Congress are proposing to block the Environmental Protection Agency from updating safeguards to protect our health from dangerous air pollution, saying they will cost businesses too much money.”  By contrast, more than three out of four Americans (77 percent) -- including 61 percent of Republicans -- say “Congress (should) let the EPA do its job.”
  • The vast majority of Republicans -- and all Americans -- oppose the Newt Gingrich plan to dismantle the EPA.  Overall, only 25 percent of Americans agree with Newt Gingrich’s call to eliminate the EPA.  More than two out of three Americans (67 percent) oppose abolishing the EPA, including half (49 percent) who strongly oppose it. Among those opposing the Gingrich plan:  61 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of Independents, and 79 percent of Democrats.

This lines up very nicely with a Greenberg/ Quinlan Rosner ResearchAyres McHenry & Associates, Inc. survey conducted February 17-14, 2011  for the American Lung Association:

  • 69 percent of American voters stand behind the EPA in its attempt to protect public health by reducing carbon pollution.
  • 77 percent of voters support stronger protections on carbon dioxide.
  • A bipartisan 69 percent of American voters believe that EPA scientists, rather than Members of Congress, should set our nation’s pollution standards.

So, what about this new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey showing some support among Americans for cutting the EPA?

As columnist Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post notes, the WSJ/NBC survey actually has more to say about increasing the role  of government and creating jobs than it does about cutting the EPA or any other program:

When asked whether government, in general, is trying to do too much or not doing enough, 51 percent said government should do more. That's not exactly a mandate for slashing federal, state and municipal programs and trying to turn public employees into a caste of untouchables. It doesn't, according to the survey - not even philosophically.

The WSJ/NBC survey itself was weirdly constructed. It asked about whole range of potential cuts to government programs, but in two different questions, so its hard to get a sense of overall preferences. But when you combine the surveys questions to look at all possible cuts and tax increases, public preferences become more clear and the idea of trimming the EPA falls down the merged list considerably.  Coming in ahead of cuts to the EPA are:

  • Adding a surtax on millionaires.
  • Eliminating earmarks and other pork-barrel spending.
  • Ending spending on weapons systems the Pentagon doesn’t want.
  • Eliminating tax breaks for the  oil & gas companies.
  • Phasing out the Bush tax cuts.
  • Subsidies to build new nuclear power plants.

All those things come in well ahead of cuts to the EPA.  And that’s about how you would expect it – putting EPA spending reductions way down the list behind  other options that the public sees as not resulting in more dirty air and water.