This may come as somewhat of a shock to our younger readers, but protecting the environment used to be a subject of bipartisan agreement. The Environmental Protection Agency was proposed by President Richard Nixon (a Republican) on January 1, 1970. On December 2 of the same year, the EPA was born.
For the first ten years, the EPA remained fairly non-controversial. This changed, as did so many other government programs, during the Reagan years. Since the beginning of Reagan’s first term in 1981, enactment of significant environmental programs and legislation have had a direct relationship to which party occupied the White House for the most part.
Since the 2010 elections, we’ve seen an ever increasing assault on the EPA. And, with the Republicans winning control of both chambers last November, the attack’s only ramped up even more. Some of the “highlights” so far:
Two weeks after the election, the House passed two bills on consecutive days. The first was H.R. 1422, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2014. The Science Advisory Board (SAB) is a group that gives scientific advice to the EPA Administrator. H.R. 1422, if passed into law, would have made it easier for scientists with financial ties to corporations to serve on the SAB, while making it more difficult for independent scientists and scientists who received EPA grants to serve on the board. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said on the House floor;
“The supposed intent [of the bill] is to improve the process of selecting advisors, but in reality, the bill would allow the board to be stacked with industry representatives, while making it more difficult for academics to serve. It benefits no one but the industry, and it harms public health.”
The next day, the House passed H.R. 4012, the Secret Science Reform Act of 2014. H.R. 4012 would limit the type of scientific research the Environmental Protection Agency can use when crafting regulations to protect the environment and public health. While the bill at first glance looks to be an admirable attempt to promote transparency, many scientists saw it differently. Union of Concerned Scientists director Andrew Rosenberg wrote in Roll Call;
“Some of the best real-world public health research, which relies on patient data like hospital admissions, would be excluded from consideration because personal data could not, and should not, be made public. Demanding public release of full raw data the agency cannot legally disclose is simply a way to accuse the agency of hiding something when it has nothing to hide.”
Both of these bills died before coming to a vote in the Senate. However, with both chambers being under Republican control, there’s a good chance they’ll be introduced in the new Congress.
Since the new Congress, and in particular the new Senate, has been sworn in, we’ve seen a glimpse of what’s in store for the EPA over the next two years, and it isn’t pretty.
The first signs were in the senators named to chair various subcommittees. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was named as the chair of the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee, and Marco Rubio (R-FL) was named as the chair of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee. While both of these could almost appear to make sense at first glimpse (Cruz is from Houston – the home of NASA, and Rubio comes from a state surrounded by ocean on three sides), both of them are hardcore climate change deniers. Keith Gaby, Communications director for climate and air at the Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress;
“Senator Cruz has been playing to the most extreme elements of his party on climate change. Having someone chair the Science Committee who claims there is no evidence of climate change in the last 15 years — when 13 of the 14 hottest years on record have occurred in the 21st Century — is not an encouraging development… we can only hope that the other members of the Committee act as a check on his actions.”
In regards to Rubio, Gaby said:
“With the huge and visible climate change impacts on his home state, we hope Rubio will take a more constructive approach. Florida could be a national leader in clean energy, and its economy has a lot at stake when it comes to in the tourism and real estate.”
And, of course, there’s Senator James Inhofe, one of the main climate change deniers in the Senate. What chair did he get? The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, of course, which oversees much of the work the EPA does.
Next, the House passed H.R. 185, the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA). Supposedly aimed at cutting costly regulations imposed by federal and independent agencies, it would actually make it much more difficult to pass and enforce protective measures overseen by the government. Ronald White, director of Regulatory Policy at the Center for Effective Government, states that the RAA adds at least 70 new procedural steps into a process that already takes years for agencies to navigate through Congress.
He also stated: “It is actually a stealth attack on all the various statutes Congress has passed over the last 40 years to protect public health environmental quality.”
As icing on the proverbial cake, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) named himself to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, which has jurisdiction over the EPA. McConnell is on record as saying that his main goal as Majority Leader is to stop the Obama administration’s proposed climate regulations.
The EPA was the target of budget cuts in the Cromnibus that was passed and signed into law before the beginning of the year; the cuts build on previous reductions, and will bring the agency’s staffing to its lowest level since 1989. The first month of the new Congress is promising more of the same. If this continues for the next two years, we feel we can safely say that the most imminent environmental catastrophe we face is our own Congress.