Taming the Federal Beast, One Little Cut at a Time

H. Sterling Burnett
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Posted: Sep 01, 2015 12:01 AM
Taming the Federal Beast, One Little Cut at a Time

Like the Hekatonkheires of Greek mythology, a creature with 100 hands and 50 heads, our national government has thousands of eyes spying everywhere and its hands in everyone’s pockets, intensively regulating our businesses, properties, and personal lives. The government did not gain its Leviathan-like size and reach overnight, and it will not be undone overnight, either.

Paring it down to size will require a death by a thousand cuts, which, in environmental and energy policy, may have begun with the passage of the Cromnibus budget bill in late 2014. The Cromnibus might mark the beginning of a slow reduction of the federal government’s overreach in environmental issues.

One provision in the Cromnibus reduced funding for the U.S. biofuels programs by $18 million. The bill also cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget by $60 million from its 2014 levels, and staffing at the agency could reach a 25-year low in 2015. The law also blocked President Barack Obama’s $3 billion pledge to the U.N. climate fund and prohibited the Export-Import Bank from denying financing for coal-fired power plants in developing countries.

Other Cromnibus provisions delayed the forced phase-out of traditional incandescent light bulbs and blocked EPA from regulating methane emissions from farms. Small steps all, yet every little bit counts.

In late April, the U.S. House of Representatives’ science committee approved a bill to reauthorize and fund research at the Department of Energy (DOE). The bill would cut DOE’s Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program 7 percent below its current level of $592 million and 10 percent below the White House’s 2016 request. The bill also bars BER from starting any new climate science research unless it can show it does not duplicate work being funded by other federal agencies, and it cancels any existing climate research found to be duplicative. Additionally, DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would get one-third less funding in 2016 and 2017 than it did in 2015.

On June 24, by a vote of 247 to 180, the House voted to allow state governors to opt out of the requirement to submit state implementation plans for EPA’s clean power plan (CPP) if it would raise electricity rates, reduce reliability of electricity, or damage important economic sectors. The House bill would also delay enforcement of the CPP until all court challenges are resolved.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s 2016 Interior Department and EPA spending bill goes further than House efforts to restrain the CPP. In addition to cutting EPA’s budget by $538 million, the bill also included a rider allowing a state to opt out of the CPP if its governor determines the CPP would hamper economic growth or competitiveness or result in job losses. In addition, the Senate bill would also reinterpret the Clean Air Act to make it extremely difficult for the agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in the future.

Committee Democrats had called for the Senate not to revert to strict spending limits established in the 2013 sequester bill and instead to increase the Interior Departments and EPA’s funding. Republicans rejected the calls for increased spending, providing only the $30.01 billion approved under sequestration—$400 million less than Congress approved in 2015 and $2.2 billion less than President Obama requested.

In addition to the changes in appropriations, the Senate approved policy directives requiring the Bureau of Land Management, which recently enacted stricter restrictions on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, to defer to state and tribal standards for regulating hydraulic fracturing. This blocked the Obama administration from making the ozone standard for power plants more restrictive and barred EPA from implementing its new Waters of the United States rules, which seek to expand the government’s jurisdiction over wetlands on private property.

The bill also included provisions barring the Fish and Wildlife Service from enforcing its listing of the lesser prairie chicken under the Endangered Species Act, preventing the listing of the greater sage grouse as an endangered or threatened species and delisting the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lake states.

Obama has threatened to veto these bills, so the modest restraints on big government described above may not happen just yet. What’s important is the debate has changed. Instead of proposing how much and how quickly government should grow, Congress is now acting to reduce the size and reach of federal environmental bureaucrats, and that’s a welcome change.