GOP lawmakers challenge Trump’s plan to slash EPA budget

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator-Scott Pruitt defended the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the EPA in its FY18 budget. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faced skeptical legislators Thursday, when members of the House Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee questioned how the EPA plans to fulfill its responsibilities if Congress approves the agency’s proposed 31 percent budget cut.

The subcommittee’s Republican chairman, Ken Calvert (CA) told Pruitt that President Donald Trump’s plans to cut $54 billion in non-defense spending from the federal budget in the coming fiscal year is an “untenable proposition.”

The proposed budget would “significantly reduce or terminate programs that are vitally important to each member on this subcommittee,” said Calvert, who pointed to drastic cuts to the EPA’s Superfund and air quality programs. “These are all proposals that we are unlikely to entertain,” he said.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told Pruitt that in the past eight years, he will be the first EPA administrator to get more money than requested. “That doesn’t mean you’ll get as much as you’ve had, but you’ll do better than you’ve asked for,” Cole said.

The Trump administration, in its fiscal year 2018 budget, proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA’s budget, or $2.4 billion below current funding levels. The agency would lose 3,800 employees under the budget proposal.

The agency plans to make the proposed staff cuts through attrition and buyouts, Pruitt said. About 20 percent of the agency’s staff is eligible for retirement today, he added.

Pruitt described reports that the Trump administration plans to close the EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago as “pure legend.” Rumors have circulated that the administration planned to consolidate the Chicago office with the agency’s Region 7 office in Kansas “There’s no consideration presently with respect to any regional offices about moving them one location or another,” he said.

In his opening statement at the budget hearing, Pruitt reiterated the agency’s commitment to a “back-to-basics” agenda for the EPA that focuses on removing environmental protections that inhibit job creation. As part of the administration’s plan to let states take over many of the agency’s responsibilities, Pruitt also stressed that “a one-size-fits-all strategy to achieve environmental outcomes doesn’t work.”

Several subcommittee members complained that the proposed budget would “leave states holding the bag” when the agency’s regional environmental programs are eliminated. The regional programs cover the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, Lake Champlain, Long Island, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, South Florida, San Francisco Bay, and Puget Sound.

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) pressed Pruitt on the plan to eliminate the programs. “In my region, we actually want the EPA to be engaged on an economic issue and environmental issue. We can’t afford the EPA to check out on Puget Sound recovery,” he said.

The water intake facility for the city of Toledo, Ohio, is surrounded by an algae bloom on Lake Erie in 2014. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative program has funded work in Ohio to slow down Lake Erie’s toxic algae. CREDIT: AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari,

From the other side of the aisle, Pruitt received a similar message on the EPA’s role in the Great Lakes region. Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) told Pruitt that the EPA’s Great Lakes cleanup program has made a “tremendous difference” in economic growth in the area. Pruitt generally avoided any explanation of how the EPA plans to meet its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act if it eliminates these regional programs.

The administrator said he looks forward to working with the various states on addressing their clean water objectives, failing to explain how these efforts will be funded. “We’ve talked to many of the governors that are impacted by these issues, and we are engaged in discussions with them [on] how we can have a more vibrant shared approach,” Pruitt said.

There are functions that the agency can perform outside of funding these programs, Pruitt argued. For the Great Lakes area, “obviously, money is important,” but a “leadership role is important, as well,” he said.

The budget hearing was a cordial affair, but committee members did not hesitate to voice strong opinions on the proposed cuts.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), said the president’s proposed budget would “set the agency back 30 years” through its elimination of key programs and reduction in enforcement activities. Citing Pruitt’s involvement in the decision, McCollum said Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement makes the the United States look like a “rogue environmental nation.”

Withdrawing from the international climate agreement was not a sign of disengagement, Pruitt responded. “The president made that clear,” he said. While in Italy earlier this week, Pruitt noted he started bilateral discussions with his environmental ministry counterparts in the G7 “with respect to our continued leadership” on carbon dioxide reduction.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) highlighted Pruitt’s past role as attorney general where he had close ties with oil and gas companies and led several lawsuits against the EPA during the Obama administration. “Between your disturbingly close ties to the oil and gas industries, your past work to directly undermine the EPA, and skepticism that human activity plays a role in climate change, I suppose it’s surprising you didn’t propose to eliminate the agency altogether,” Lowey told Pruitt in her opening comments.

Environmental groups were not impressed with Pruitt’s defense of the massive cuts to his own agency. “This entire hearing was a transparent and hypocritical exercise in Pruitt making the absurd claim that he and Trump will protect clean air and water by cutting the very programs that do exactly that, ranging from grants to states, funding to clean up Superfund sites, and initiatives that protect and restore vital areas including the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, and the Chesapeake Bay,” Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce said in a statement.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), who expressed concern about the proposed cuts in funding to the Superfund program, reminded Pruitt that Congress has the power of the purse. “I would just like to say that it’s good to move with precaution and caution before you take too many dramatic steps,” Frelinghuysen said.