Policy

EPA Budget Cuts Won't Fly, House Appropriators Tell Pruitt

House appropriators, both Republicans and Democrats, were opposed to the cuts to the EPA budget defended by its administrator, Scott Pruitt. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s defense of the administration’s proposal to his agency’s budget by 30 percent are falling short with House appropriators, who are making clear that they’ll toss it aside when they write their Interior-Environment spending bill.

The sharp cuts proposed in the President Donald Trump’s budget are “untenable,” Interior-Environment Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert told Pruitt at a hearing, a sharp rebuke from a key appropriator.

Facing a 30 percent cut in its spending, the EPA would incur the steepest cuts of any federal agency in Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request. The White House’s proposed $5.7 billion for EPA is $2.4 billion below the $8.1 billion enacted in the fiscal 2017 omnibus bill (PL 115-31).

“I can assure you, you’ll be the first EPA administrator who has come before this committee in eight years that gets more money than you’ve asked for,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told Pruitt, acknowledging longstanding antipathy toward the agency by Congress’ Republican majority. “The final decision rests here.”

Pruitt, an outspoken critic of the agency in his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, told lawmakers that the agency can fulfill its mission with “a trimmed budget” and proper management.

“The president’s budget aims to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies, and prioritize EPA’s core statutory mission of providing Americans with clean air, land, and water,” he said.

The administration’s budget also proposes to eliminate nearly 3,800 positions, amounting to about a quarter of the agency’s workforce. Pruitt told the panel the cuts would be through attrition, voluntary buyouts and a hiring freeze.

The EPA has lost more than 2,000 employees over the last decade and critics of the budget request fear further reductions could cripple the agency and its ability to protect the environment and enforce regulations.

Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said he would take into account the fact that the agency has already lost a big chunk of its funding and staff.

“It’s important to know that the Congress has cut the agency quite a bit before you got there and quite a bit recently in relative terms,” Amodei told Pruitt. “Quite frankly, as many people have made the point, nobody is standing on the rooftop begging for dirty water and dirty air and dirty soil and those sorts of things.”

While Republicans on the panel commended Trump’s attempts to balance the budget and continue current funding levels for drinking water infrastructure, lawmakers from both parties made it clear they would not support a budget that would cut dozens of programs important to their constituencies.

“Proposed cuts of this magnitude put agencies and important tasks at risk,” Calvert said. “In many instances the budget proposes to significantly reduce or eliminate programs that are vitally important to each member on this subcommittee.”

State Role

In defending the proposal, Pruitt told lawmakers that his goal was to return more power to the states to regulate environmental issues.

“EPA can accomplish a lot when the agency focuses on working cooperatively with the states and tribes to improve health and the environment,” Pruitt said.

But that assertion was challenged by both Republicans and Democrats, who pointed to the deep cuts to multiple state grant programs that they said would hurt their communities.

“I don’t know how we can expect states to take on more of EPA’s responsibilities without money,” Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., told Pruitt.

Calvert said he objected to cuts to several programs including the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act grant program, which he said is essential to improving air quality in his state of California and the Superfund program, that would see its budget cut by a third.

“These are all proposals that we’re unlikely to entertain,” Calvert said. “Further, the budget proposes to significantly reduce other important state grants while asking states to continue to serve as principle leads to implement delegated environmental programs.”

Ohio lawmakers on the panel, Republican David Joyce and Democrat Marcy Kaptur, scolded Pruitt for the administration’s plan to eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The initiative was founded in 2010 to bolster efforts to protect and restore what is considered the largest system of fresh surface water in the world, covering Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.

“It wouldn’t happen without federal support,” Joyce said.

Overall, the budget would cut around 50 EPA programs and eliminate most of the agency’s climate programs, which the administration views as a waste of money. Trump himself has in the past said that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and his representatives have recently dodged questions seeking to clarify his position on the issue.

Democrats rebuked the administration for what they view as an anti-environment plan that rejects the agency’s responsibility to provide a healthy environment and clean water.

House Appropriations’ top Democrat, Nita M. Lowey of New York, said the budget displayed the administration’s “willful ignorance” of climate change and falls short of the agency’s responsibilities.

Pruitt has acknowledged that climate change is happening, but casts doubt on the science linking global warming to human activity and carbon emissions. He has also challenged assumptions that the long-term economic cost of climate change is greater than the short term cost of reducing carbon emissions.

Interior-Environment Subcommittee top Democrat, Betty McCollum of Minnesota, said she will not support a budget that funds the agency below 2017 levels.

“President Trump can propose this destructive budget and the administrator can come here and defend it, but it’s Congress and this committee which will determine EPA’s funding,” McCollum said.

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