Trump’s EPA Cuts Show Challenge of First Budget

The president’s reductions for environmental programs may not make it past his fellow Republicans on the Hill.

The Superfund program to clean up hazardous industrial sites—such as Colorado’s Gold King Mine—would see a 25 percent cut in a leaked version of President Trump's budget proposal.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
May 22, 2017, 8 p.m.

The White House budget set to be released Tuesday would make good on President Trump’s threats to radically reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s agenda, with a 31 percent cut to the agency’s budget.

Whether Congress lets him follow through on that threat is another story—and an illustration of how difficult it may be for Trump and Hill Republicans to reach a funding deal, even for a subject on which they broadly agree.

A leaked budget document released last week showed massive cuts to EPA programs in the administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget, including a 39 percent cut to the Office of Science and Technology, a 45 percent cut to state grants, and a zeroing out of several climate-change programs. The Superfund cleanup program would face budget cuts, and several regional programs would be zeroed out.

The budget is also expected to support buyouts for EPA employees as the administration tries to trim the staff (some estimates say some 4,000 jobs would need to be cut).

The budget numbers—which mirror previous White House proposals—were released by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents state and local pollution agencies. EPA did not confirm the figures, but agency spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in a statement that the budget “aims to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies and focus on our core statutory mission.”

On Tuesday, the Trump administration will release its full 2018 budget, a proposal that the White House says would support $3.6 trillion in spending reductions with the goal of balancing the budget in the next decade. It is sure to be toxic to Democrats—Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday it would be a “disaster” if implemented—but the EPA cuts may not pass muster even with Republicans.

“We’ll look through all the numbers here. Oftentimes what a president proposes, what comes out the other end of the congressional process is two different numbers,” said Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who sits on the Senate subcommittee in charge of EPA spending. “I’ll be taking a close look to make sure Superfund sites are funded adequately.”

It’s just one area where Trump’s budget faces an uphill battle. Despite campaign promises not to cut entitlement programs, the budget would tweak some Social Security programs (although not the core function) and Medicaid, while making cuts to the federal food-stamps program. The State Department would also see cuts that some Republicans have already deemed too big.

Those are programs that most mainstream politicians would never touch, but Trump and congressional Republicans were widely expected to slash environmental programs. Cuts to climate-change programs and enforcement for regulations on power plants and oil-and-gas operations aren’t likely to be challenged by the Right.

Still, many Republicans want to protect core EPA programs, and the details of how to pare down EPA spending have always been a tough sell with moderates. The White House’s March budget blueprint contained broad cuts to similar EPA programs, but the agency’s budget was maintained in the spending bill passed by Congress.

For example, the White House budget would zero out regional programs, such as those meant to restore the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes funding has been used to combat invasive species, improve fish habitats, and restore corroded wetlands.

When proposed as part of the administration’s blueprint in March, legislators from both parties balked at cuts that might harm environmental cleanups in their states. Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan said such a cut would be “penny-wise but pound-foolish.” GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said he was “committed to continuing to do everything I can to protect and preserve Lake Erie,” and ultimately the program was maintained in the spending bill. An aide for Portman said he would “fight to restore this funding again.”

The budget document also details cuts to programs that normally garner bipartisan consensus. A grant to incentivize diesel engines would be slashed (the Obama administration also proposed cutting the program, but it too was maintained by Congress). State grants, which make up more than 40 percent of EPA’s overall spending, are universally popular, and state agencies have pressured legislators to maintain them.

Even the Superfund program to clean up hazardous former industrial sites—one of administrator Scott Pruitt’s top priorities—would see a roughly 25 percent cut. Superfund cleanups represent one of the bipartisan bright spots on the Hill when it comes to EPA programs, as Republicans have sought to beef up Superfund work in previous years.

Likewise, reports that the administration would take an axe to clean-energy programs drew a quick rebuke from six Republican senators, who wrote in a letter that “the federal debt is not the result of Congress overspending on science and energy research each year.”

Sen. James Inhofe, who broadly supports cutting the EPA, said in an interview that he did not want Pruitt to “single out Superfund,” but trusted the administration to make a proposal that Republicans would be on board with, instead of trying to make false cuts that would be guaranteed to be restored.

“If we didn’t have Pruitt at the helm it’d be a different situation. What I have seen over and over again is that whenever they make a cut in a bureaucracy, they try to find the thing that people want the most to say that’s what’s going to be cut,” Inhofe said. “If this had been a year ago, I’d say that would be the case. That won’t be the case now.”

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