Writers on the Range: Congress has fought back on budget cuts
December 8, 2017
Early on, the Trump administration said that one of its top priorities would be "deconstruction of the administrative state." President Donald Trump's team then turned its fire on environmental regulations and science programs as well as agencies charged with protecting clean air, water and public land. Yet even with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, the Trump attack has met stiff resistance on Capitol Hill.
Surprisingly, in last year's Omnibus Spending Bill, Republicans in Congress refused to go along with most of the Trump team's budget cuts on the environment, an important indicator of support for environmental programs among conservatives.
For example, Trump's team eagerly attacked the Environmental Protection Agency, the agency that regulates interstate air and water pollution and implements more than 40 years of pollution-control laws. Trump's team proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA's budget for 2018. Republicans in Congress replaced his proposed cut with a 1 percent cut in the 2018 appropriations bill. Much of the cut would come from global-warming science programs and from cuts to the Superfund program, which is used to clean up abandoned industrial sites like the Gold King Mine. For conservationists, the 1 percent cut is unwelcome, but a 31 percent cut is unthinkable.
Meanwhile, national parks are experiencing record visitation and many, like Zion and Yellowstone, contend with more visitors than their facilities and staff can accommodate. Some 330 million people visited national parks and monuments last year, contributing $32 billion to local economies. In response, the Trump team proposed cutting the National Park Service budget by 13 percent, a level experts say would require firing thousands of career rangers and even closing some parks. Congress rejected the Trump cuts and increased the Park Service budget by almost 3 percent. Now, however, the administration wants to drastically increase park admission fees.
Trump also proposed a 10 percent cut to the U.S. Forest Service budget, but Congress only agreed to a 1.2 percent cut, while increasing the agency's fire management budget by almost 20 percent. Yet even these smaller cuts will stress an agency that manages 193 million acres and has been underfunded for decades. The Forest Service now spends more than half of its budget on wildland fires, an amount that will only grow as global warming increases the number and severity of fires in the West.
The Bureau of Land Management was in for a 13 percent cut from the Trump team. But Congress ignored Trump and increased the agency's funding by 1.3 percent. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages national wildlife refuges and endangered species, also is critically underfunded, with a mounting maintenance backlog and a staff shortage. Nonetheless, Trump's team proposed a 14 percent cut. Congress, however, increased the Fish and Wildlife budget by about 1 percent.
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The administration proposed many other budget cuts that would negatively affect the West. For example, his team proposed zeroing out funding for Amtrak's long-distance trains, which would have eliminated passenger train service for thousands of small communities, and not just in the Western United States. Reacting to widespread resistance, Congress rejected the cut and restored funding for Amtrak.
Consistent with its emphasis on oil and gas, the Trump team consistently sought big cuts in federal support for renewable energy, including wind and solar, which are among the fastest growing sectors of the national economy. For example, Trump proposed a 70 percent cut to the Department of Energy's Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, which researches renewable energy. Again, Congress responded by rejecting Trump's cuts and increased that budget by almost 1 percent.
Now, Congress is working on the omnibus spending bill for 2018, which may have environmental appropriations close to those from last year. Then again, the bill could be changed to pay for expected cuts in the so-called tax reform bill, which has everyone on Capitol Hill struggling to reconcile differences in the House and Senate bills. Congress must also pass another temporary "continuing resolution" to keep the government operating through the new year. Whether environmental budgets will take big hits in the eventual 2018 omnibus bill is anybody's guess.
At the same time, environmentally damaging riders cling to the budget as well as to the administration's new tax plan, with provisions that would exempt the federal livestock-grazing program from environmental review, would prevent the BLM from fully collecting oil royalties, and thwart efforts to control methane pollution from federal lands oil drilling.
Whatever happens, substantial budget increases to protect the environment may be a long and painful time coming.
Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in New Mexico.
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