Get Ready: The GOP Has Declared War on the Environment


Many who follow environmental issues find themselves routinely disappointed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its failure to adequately protect the environment (and thus the health of the American people). Even with the EPA acting as environmental cop on the beat, the U.S. is still home to fish too contaminated to eat, dead zones off our coasts (such as one the size of Massachusetts in the Gulf of Mexico), and an unthinkable amount of pesticides applied to our lands. In fact, according to Pesticide Action Network, some two-thirds of all active ingredients in pesticides were legalized by the EPA in a process known as "conditional registration." That's the legal equivalent of saying "Go ahead and use it, and tell us later whether or not it's safe." Once conditionally registered, pesticides are rarely, if ever, removed from the market once the safety studies are completed.

But House Republicans and their donor base are not among those who worry that the EPA does not go far enough. Quite the opposite. The first talk of taking on the EPA began long before the new Republican House of Representatives was even sworn in. In the current environment of budget hysteria, instead of offering earmarks and spending, Congress could offer fewer environmental regulations to its donor base. In a February 11 floor speech, House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas, R-Okla. spoke out against EPA regulation of particulate matter, pesticide spray drift, agricultural pollution in Chesapeake Bay, and more. But the biggest kahuna of all for Congress to go after is the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases.

For a preview of the House Republican agenda over the next two years, one need look no further than the over 1,900 pages of responses Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. received when he asked heads of industry about regulatory burdens they wished to see lifted. The EPA was a popular punching bag for industry respondents. The American Chemistry Council simply complains about the EPA's scientific methods, providing 200 pages of backup data to support its point. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dislikes the volume and complexity of environmental regulation in general, going so far as to provide a graph showing why environmental regulations are even more complex than the U.S. tax code.

Among the top complaints were the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The American Farm Bureau Federation chimes in, agreeing that nutrient pollution should not be regulated, and adding much more. "Unfortunately," it says, "the list of recent Federal regulatory actions that have had or may have a negative economic impact on the agricultural sector is long." The Fertilizer Institute is quite specific and detailed in noting its distaste for the EPA's efforts to clean up the nutrient pollution (fertilizer and manure runoff) in waterways that spills into the ocean, creating dead zones where no ocean life can survive. Additionally, taxpayers pay to have toxic nitrates leached from fertilizer runoff cleaned from their drinking water. The Fertilizer Institute asks in its letter that "Congress and the Administration ensure that any legislation or regulatory actions do not create a competitive disadvantage for America's fertilizer industry." They add that, "the U.S. fertilizer industry provides high paying jobs to hardworking Americans," as reason why the regulations should not be enacted.

Those who complained did not even have to wait for Issa's oversight hearings to begin seeing results. The Republicans -- with no support from Democrats -- passed a bill to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year that was chock full of amendments to dismantle environmental regulation or otherwise cripple the EPA. The Fertilizer Institute got its wish, with an amendment halting the EPA's regulation of fertilizer runoff in Florida's polluted waterways. Coal companies engaging in mountaintop removal mining and cement plants that spew mercury and other toxins into the environment came out as big winners in this bill as well.

The bill also strips the EPA of funding to enforce regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, and, in an amendment, bans it from regulating greenhouse gases for good measure. The greenhouse gas issue has been a sticking point for Republicans and even some Democrats for some time. Without successful passage of a climate bill by Congress in the last Congress, the EPA retains its legal requirement of regulating greenhouse gas emissions. During the last Congress, with Democratic majorities in both houses, both parties knew if they did not want the EPA regulating greenhouse gas emissions, they had to compromise on a climate bill (likely a cap and trade system) replacing the EPA's greenhouse gas regulatory authority. But without a Democratic majority in the house, the Republicans are now free to remove the EPA's regulatory authority over greenhouse gas and replace it with nothing. However, this idea might meet trouble in the Senate.

The House is now holding the government hostage as it pushes for passage of its budget bill. If the Senate, still in the hands of Democrats, cannot come to a compromise with House Republicans by March 4, the government will shut down. This happened in the mid-1990s during a standoff between Congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton, and Clinton came out ahead. This time around, Republicans are hoping that Senate Democrats who refuse to accept the budget bill, which cuts spending for low-income heating subsidies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and much more, in addition to its assault on the EPA, will be blamed by the public if the government shuts down.

But even if Senate Democrats find a way to send this bill to the president without the provisions that defund and strip authority from the EPA (with or without a government shutdown), this is clearly just the beginning of the Republican war on the EPA. We can expect two years of such attacks on the EPA, and even if they are blocked by the Senate, they will keep the EPA focused on responding to attacks, subpoenas, and oversight hearings instead of doing more to protect the environment. Furthermore, the negative press generated about the EPA might turn public opinion against environmental regulation. And, of course, there's the likelihood that some of the Republicans ideas will be included in final bills passed by Congress as part of a compromise. Buckle up -- it's going to be a long two years.

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