From endangered species protection to easing standards for drinking water, the Republican-led Congress is using its power of the purse as never before to refashion the nation’s environmental protection policies.
Spending bills moving through the House have been stocked with riders that directly affect the way the federal government will implement laws to protect the environment and its natural resources.
The effect, say critics, is essentially to rewrite the nation’s environmental agenda without a full, public debate on the laws themselves. Others contend it’s a legitimate way to effect policy as quickly as possible.
“It’s a sneak attack,” said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, whose department has been the subject of numerous directives through the appropriations process from how it implements the Endangered Species Act to the size of its public relations office.
“It’s a tremendously cynical approach to public service,” he added. “They are basically sitting down in back rooms with the lobbyists and conspiring to find ways to avoid having any debate.”
A spending bill moving toward House approval, for example, would curtail the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by almost a third and cut its enforcement program by $130 million. Agency officials say violations by some polluters would no longer be pursued.
The agency also would be prohibited from pressing pending regulations on toxic releases from cement kilns and certain incinerators. The measure would scrap rules on pollution from automobiles and industrial plants, and scale back a public information program on toxic emissions from factories.
Restrictions in a House spending bill would “effectively create a moratorium on the Clean Water Act,” complained EPA Administrator Carol Browner. One House provision would forbid the EPA from using money to require pretreatment of sewage or to protect wetlands.
“What you see when you look at the whole picture is an organized, concerted effort to undermine public health and safety and the environment,” complained Browner.
Congress’ power of the purse has never before been used this broadly to affect environmental protection programs, added Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass. “This is just wholesale legislating. It’s absurd,” he said.
Various money bills moving through Congress also would:
Ban new listings of endangered species and curtail sharply the Interior Department’s research and preliminary work related to species protection.
Make it easier to build roadways in national parks and wilderness areas; open national forests to increased logging; and freeze most land purchases for parks.
Sharply cut money for research programs to protect the Pacific salmon and various ocean fisheries protection programs.
Prohibit or curtail scientific research and surveys of species. Federal officials would be banned from going on private land to make ecological surveys.