Defending EPA Against the Coming Right Wing Attack

I recently proposed a modest Green Agenda for the Obama Administration and the next Congress. While much of the agenda is positive and forward moving, a key element of the agenda is defensive: protecting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency against the mindless onslaught of the radical right wing. I admit I am not an unbiased observer of EPA. I first worked EPA in 1977, when I helped staff a task force on public participation in EPA's water programs. After graduate school, I worked for EPA in 1980 and 1981, developing the community relations program for Superfund, and in the 1990's I worked as a consultant to Ron Brand, the visionary founder of EPA's Office of Underground Storage Tanks.

I've been in and around EPA for most of my career and it is an agency filled with talented and dedicated scientists, lawyers, administrators and other experts. Its organizational culture is not without flaws, but for four decades it has taken the lead in reducing our economy's impact on our natural environment. It has managed the trick of allowing our economy to grow while reducing many key pollutants.

Last week I wrote that it is good politics for President Obama to protect and defend EPA:

Right wing efforts to curtail EPA and slow down environmental regulation and enforcement will fail and can easily be painted as the views of extremists. Protecting the environment remains as mainstream an issue as you can find. People define environmental quality as a form of security and think of it as a way that they protect their families and the health of their children. The notion that environmental regulation "kills jobs" competes with the more powerful perception that pollution is poison that can make your family sick. While environmental regulation must be portrayed as "reasonable" and regulatory agencies must move prudently and without arrogance, public support for environmental protection remains strong. People like to breathe air, drink water and eat food that is not poisoned by toxins.

I am not alone in my concern about the attack that is coming. On December 24 the New York Times lead editorial was entitled: "A Coming Assault on the EPA." That editorial predicted that:

Republicans in the next Congress are obviously set on limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate a wide range of air pollutants -- even if it means denying the agency money to run its programs and chaining its administrator, Lisa Jackson, to the witness stand.

I don't see the symbolic posturing or preening Representatives as a threat to the EPA, but the cynical right wing strategy of "starving the beast" by cutting funding could pose a grave threat to this chronically underfunded agency. EPA is a very decentralized and relatively small federal agency. Throughout the anti-environmental Bush years, EPA was starved financially. When Bush came into office in 2001 EPA's annual budget was about $8 billion and by the time he left it had declined to about $7.5 billion. These data are not presented in constant dollars, and so the purchasing power of EPA's budget declined substantially during the Bush years. EPA had a staff of about 18,000 when Bush arrived at the White House, by the time he left it had declined to about 17,200. Most of EPA's staff is not in Washington but in the ten regional offices around the nation that work closely with state and municipal governments to manage our environment. Under President Obama, the EPA's resource picture has been improving. The agency's budget is finally over $10 billion, and the staff size is gradually approaching 18,000 again.

Since funding bills must begin in the now Republican controlled House of Representatives, the threat to EPA's funding is real. President Obama will need to use his political capital to defend the EPA's budget. Ten billion dollars may be a lot of money, but not when compared to the entire federal budget. In the military budget it would be a rounding error. While defending EPA will be good politics, it is even better public policy. America is learning that sustainable economic development requires the protection of our ecosphere. Polluting the planet poisons our water, air and food and impairs human health and well being. We have already spent hundreds of billions of public and private dollars on toxic waste clean up. The Chinese government will soon be learning the same lesson as it pays the costs of its rapid economic expansion. BP learned that lesson last summer in the Gulf of Mexico.

A well-funded EPA can help us manage the environment and ensure that the benefits of our economic growth outweigh the costs. An underfunded EPA is asking for more disasters like the massive oil spill in the Gulf. The cause of that catastrophe was under-regulation. Do we really want to incur similar risks throughout our economy? The President should begin to make clear his support for EPA's work and its need for resources. He should work to reinforce the EPA's support with the general public in an effort to inoculate the agency against the coming right wing attack.