Proposed EPA Budget Cuts Raise Serious Concerns

At the outset of this post, I note that I appreciate the principle behind the proposed 24 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget. Being a libertarian, I believe the government is bloated as a general matter. Also, I categorically agree that a number of current EPA programs—e.g., EPA’s climate programs and EnergyStar branding—are not worthy of government appropriations in a perfect world. Finally, as a climate change skeptic, I am immune to group think or squishiness.

Having said that, my initial reaction is one of concern.

By all accounts, the Office of Management and Budget consulted neither Congress nor the states in the course of formulating these proposals. From the looks of it, OMB failed to consult even the EPA itself; according to Climatewire’s ($) Emily Holden, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt wants to scale back the cuts in negotiations with the White House. 

By failing to consult Congress, OMB doesn’t seem to have considered the EPA’s statutory duties. As I’ve before argued, the agency is beholden to thousands of duties set forth by Congress in EPA’s enabling statutes, and it is unclear whether the agency has sufficient resources to achieve these non-discretionary responsibilities.

And by failing to consult states, OMB doesn’t seem to have considered cooperative federalism. Congress intends for states and the federal government to work together to mitigate air and water pollution. Under this regulatory arrangement, which is known as cooperative federalism, states do most of the work. According to ECOS, states pay for 90 percent of the implementation of federal environmental laws. However, the federal government does contribute to the remainder in the form of grants, of which some are included in the proposed cuts. As such, it is unclear whether OMB’s proposed budget cuts create unfunded mandates for states.

I have other questions as well. Did the OMB consider civil service laws? Unfortunately, the federal workforce enjoys significant employment protections that make it difficult for political management to discipline civil servants, and it is much harder to fire them. During the Obama administration, the EPA had trouble firing an employee who watched 6 hours of porn a day on the job. Culling the federal workforce won’t happen just because OMB demands it.

In sum, I’m discouraged. I agree with the spirit behind the cuts, but I’m concerned by signs that this effort was poorly thought out. On reading the first news reports of the proposed EPA budget cuts, my reflexive reaction was to think of invading Iraq without a post-invasion plan, or passing the Affordable Care Act in order to find out what’s in it. Governing is tough, and to do it well requires preparation. I’m not advocating for endless and sclerotic planning; rather, I’m expressing my fear that these budget cuts lack a requisite thoughtfulness.

All of this being said, I’ve only read the initial reports. I hope my reasoning is wrong, and that these proposed cuts are in fact the byproduct of careful deliberation.