Nearly 20,000 Americans visit Grand Canyon National Park every day in October, but those who planned to go this week are being turned away at the gate. The Republican-led shutdown of the government means all offices, motels, and businesses in the park were shuttered. The same is happening at more than 400 parks and historic sites across the country. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has stopped doing environmental reviews of offshore drilling projects, and the Environmental Protection Agency has halted cleanup efforts at roughly two-thirds of the nation's hazardous waste sites and postponed evaluations of some chemicals and pesticides.
Republicans have put America’s health and environment in jeopardy with their shutdown tactics. The question is: will they learn from their error or do it all again in two weeks when the debt ceiling must be lifted?
GOP leaders got us into this mess because they attached an unrelated amendment to the budget. They have been saying for months they plan to hold the debt ceiling negotiations hostage in the same way. And many amendments they want to shoehorn are specifically designed to undermine health and environmental safeguards.
One would force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline for tar sands oil, short-circuiting the ongoing review of how the project could endanger America’s air, water, and climate, and turning Congress into a permitting agency. Another would require officials to open chunks of coastal areas to offshore oil and gas drilling every year until all waters were fair game for the fossil fuel industry. This mandate would prevent agencies from protecting sensitive places or from slowing the leasing down until more safety inspectors could be hired.
And yet another amendment would attack the very foundation of America’s environmental safeguards. The so-called REINS Act would require every new standard to be approved by both the House and the Senate, putting our health and safety in the hands of a gridlocked Congress instead of trained scientists.
Do you want Representatives to decide what level of mercury pollution endangers our health or Do you want medical experts to make that assessment? When it comes to establishing new guidelines for offshore oil drilling, should the rules be written by lawmakers—the primary recipients of more than $140 million worth of lobbying from the oil and gas industry in 2012—or should engineers determine what is safe?
REINS constitutes the most fundamental change in the way safeguards are created in more than 100 years. It is an extreme and dangerous measure, and would never pass the Senate under normal procedures. But even more important right now, it has nothing to do with the debt limit. It has no place in negotiations that impact America’s credit rating and the health of our economy.
Hopefully the GOP will learn a lesson from their shutdown debacle and jettison their anti-environmental amendments to debt ceiling legislation. But some of these lawmakers have built careers on undermining public health and environmental protections. They could say: we lost on the budget amendments so let’s push our agenda even harder on the next fight.
If they do, NRDC and our allies will push right back. Poll after poll shows that Americans want to safeguard the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the places we love. And across party lines, people reject the hostage-taking tactics of the government shutdown.
The House Republicans need to end this shutdown now. And they certainly shouldn’t be planning the next one already.