Just in time for the start of budget negotiations, the Senate committee in charge of funding the Environmental Protection Agency has a new member: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell announced on Monday that he will be joining the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, which has jurisdiction over the EPA. The Kentucky Republican, who has said his top priority as Majority Leader is to stop the Obama administration’s proposed climate regulations, has been touting his new positon as a way to “fight back against this Administration’s anti-coal jobs regulations” — or as he’s said in the past, to “get the EPA reined in.”
On its face, the position makes it seem like McConnell, a pro-coal politician who does not think climate change exists, will now be at the center of deciding whether President Obama’s plan to fight climate change through the EPA gets any funding at all. This is bad for environmentalists, as McConnell has promised to use what are known as limitation riders — provisions that prohibit agencies from spending money for specific uses — to set back the White House climate agenda. That could mean a rider to prevent the EPA from spending any money on regulating carbon emissions for the entire year. It could mean a rider to defund the EPA entirely. Whatever it is, McConnell will be serving on the committee that decides.
But here’s the thing: McConnell is already in charge of what goes into the Senate’s budget. He is now the Majority Leader. If he wants to include riders to defund the EPA or any of its activities, he doesn’t have to be on the environment appropriations subcommittee to do it. In other words, realistically, it really doesn’t matter if McConnell is on the subcommittee or not.
“If he wants to get language limiting the EPA’s appropriations into the subcommittee bill, being on the subcommittee is kind of irrelevant,” said Jason MacDonald, a political science professor at West Virginia University who specializes in congressional influence on bureaucratic politics.
So if McConnell doesn’t need to be on the appropriations subcommittee to get what he wants into the Senate’s budget, then why is he joining it? One reason, MacDonald said, could be to further personalize his objection to the White House’s Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of which are EPA regulations to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Kentucky, which McConnell represents, is one of the largest coal-producing states in the country, and McConnell claims the regulations would contribute to job losses.
“He might want to be in the room and want to physically offer the amendment [preventing EPA funding],” MacDonald said, noting that if McConnell weren’t on the subcommittee, the amendment would have to be introduced by another Senator. “He might want to go through the political theater of doing that, I don’t know.”
Whatever the reason, environmentalists are not thrilled with the decision. David Goldston, the director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that McConnell’s seat on the subcommitee was largely symbolic — but not unimportant.
“It sends a signal to his colleagues and to the public that this is an appropriations that he absolutely wants to have a strangle-hold on,” Goldston said. “He’s been very clear what his goals in this areas are, and that’s to basically block any and all actions to protect the environment.”
Perhaps most importantly, the decision represents one step toward what is shaping up to be a tense budget fight that centers around funding for the EPA and the President’s plan to fight climate change. As MacDonald noted, the President still has to sign whatever budget is put forth by Congress, and likely won’t sign one that includes provisions to defund one of his most visible initiatives. Many high-ranking Republicans, including McConnell, have said they won’t have a budget standstill that leads to a government shutdown.
But, MacDonald noted, anything is possible.
“There are political considerations Republicans have to make,” he said. “There are probably some members who would be willing to shut down the government over this.”