The Senate is taking steps this week to hand the EPA its largest budget in a decade, offering the agency nearly $3 billion more than the White House’s request.
If the White House accepts the Senate’s $9.011 billion appropriation for the EPA, the agency would receive its second-highest budget in history.
It’s less than the $9.53 billion offered in the House bill, but the boost in Interior-Environment funding could help reinvigorate the EPA—where employment recently sunk to levels not seen since the Reagan administration—by adding money to clean up toxic “forever chemicals” in drinking water and to beef up enforcement.
“It’s such a striking repudiation of the administration’s proposal,” Stan Meiburg, a former acting deputy administrator of the EPA in the Obama administration who now teaches at Wake Forest University, told Bloomberg Environment. “The fact that this number is going the other way is an affirmation of the support that the agency enjoys.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed cloture last week on a substitute amendment for H.R. 3055, a package of spending bills for fiscal 2020 that includes the EPA funding as well as more than $13 billion for the Interior Department.
Although the bill originated in the House, the Senate Republican majority switched out the House bill language with its own text to match the Senate’s 2020 spending bill proposals.
Republicans will likely garner the Democratic support needed to reach the 60-vote threshold to begin debating the bill.
The “minibus” spending package is considered less controversial than another one for energy, defense, and health care, according to a McConnell aide.
“We’d like to report on those [bills] and have a vigorous process as we go forward,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the floor Oct. 21.
The bump in funding would mark the EPA’s largest budget since fiscal 2010, when provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the stimulus—boosted the agency’s budget to nearly $10.3 billion.
Staffing levels subsequently tumbled 21% between 2011 and 2018, as Congress chipped away at the budget. In 2018, the agency’s workforce dipped under 14,000 for the first time in decades.
The Senate version of the EPA spending bill would include a $116 million boost over enacted levels for State and Tribal Assistance Grants—about $2 billion more than in the president’s budget request.
Some $20 million of that would be set aside to help states address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination.
The Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving funds would also get about $1 billion over enacted levels, with $41.5 million in newly authorized funds from America’s Water Infrastructure Act (P.L. 115-270).
‘The Opposite of Good Planning’
A wave of retirements among EPA staff, often the result of incentives to retire early, have created an uneven distribution across agency offices and regions.
When staff patterns are shaped by attrition, “that’s the opposite of good planning,” said David Coursen, who served in the EPA’s Office of General Counsel during several presidential administrations.
H.R. 3055—which also would include spending levels for science agencies, the Commerce and Agriculture departments, and the Food and Drug Administration—wouldn’t explicitly boost money to increase the workforce, but the House and Senate committee reports do try to prevent future EPA efforts to cut staffing at the agency.
The Senate committee “reminds agencies funded by this act that no reprogramming shall be implemented without the advance approval of the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations in accordance with the procedures detailed in this section.”
The House report also recommends nearly $14.7 million to enforce environmental laws—$1 million above enacted levels and more than $3.7 million over the White House request—of which $400,000 would go pay for increases in the workforce.
But while Congress holds the purse strings for the executive branch, the committee report language does little more than communicate the appropriators’ intentions.
The EPA and other agencies are also under Trump’s direction to “eliminate or reorganize unnecessary or redundant federal agencies,” an executive order that appropriators acknowledge in their reports.
“It’s very hard to control what is actually done with the money, and I think that language reflects that frustration,” Coursen said.
The push-and-pull reflects the balance between the two branches of government.
“The administration has made clear that they believe many of the EPA’s programs are redundant or overlapping,” said Samantha Dravis, a senior vice president at Clout Public Affairs who served as the EPA associate administrator for policy under President Donald Trump.
“However, this is one area where Congress has and will continue to effectively assert its primacy over the budget process to restore funding to the EPA,” Dravis said.
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