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What Congress and the Trump Administration Need to Do to Fix the EPA's Broken Budget

Next Thursday, June 15th, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt will testify about President Trump’s budget plan for the agency before the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.

As I wrote here, the EPA’s budget is a total mess. For years, the agency has submitted to Congress a 1,000 page budget justification that makes no sense. For starters, the agency’s budget is organized in an incomprehensible programmatic and sectorial matrix that bears no relationship to EPA’s structure or enabling statutes. Worse, the qualitative descriptions in the budget omit mention of who spends what and how they do it. All told, the document is more than 1,000 pages of gobbledygook.

The obfuscation is intentional: By making it impossible to understand, the EPA precludes congressional oversight. During the Obama administration, the agency wholesale failed to meet its non-discretionary statutory responsibilities—i.e., the things that Congress ordered them to do. Instead, the agency poured money into discretionary activities—i.e., things that the EPA choose on its own accord. On reading the budget, it is impossible to know how little the agency is spending on its statutory duties as against how much the agency spends on self-chosen activities. This state of confusion is exactly how the EPA likes it. After all, Congress can’t exercise its power of the purse if it has no idea how the money is spent.

Although the Trump administration’s heart is in the right place when it proposes a 31 percent budget cut at the EPA in its FY 2018 budget, the agency continued to employ the impossibly convoluted organizational matrix used in previous years. As in the past, the document is incomprehensible; in fact, the only difference from past practice is that the FY 2018 budget cuts the numbers by about a third, across the board.

I fear the administration is shooting itself in the foot. After studying the agency budget for weeks, my gut tells me that the agency is spending ~40% on discretionary activity. Were it to organize the EPA budget in a logical fashion, the Trump administration could demonstrate that the agency has been shortchanging Congress. In fact, a logically organized budget—one that clearly demonstrates how much money is spent on non-discretionary vs. discretionary policies—is likely to justify even greater budget cuts, because it will bring to light how much money the agency has been frittering away on non-core activity.

Congress should care, too. Oversight is only possible if the budget makes sense.

The next steps are as follows:

  • First, Congress should demand that EPA submit a budget that is capable of being understood by lawmakers. Authorizing committees, budget committees, and appropriations committees in both chambers should make this a priority.
  • Second, President Trump needs to appoint someone capable to lead the EPA’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which is responsible for putting together the agency’s budget. This political appointee should be given instructions to produce an intelligible budget.
  • Third, Mick Mulvaney, who heads the Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for presidential management of the budget, needs to issue a circular requiring that the OMB and EPA work towards improving the budget.

It should be noted that improving the budget would improve the environment, in addition to saving the taxpayer money. The statutory responsibilities that the agency has chosen to ignore are the nuts and bolts of environmental improvement. By contrast, the preponderance of discretionary spending has been given to climate policies that in no way influence the climate.