How Far Does the President Budge On Protecting Our Environment?
November 13, 2016
By Madison Bell-Rosof
Before considering any Washington political, policy, or scientific decisions that go into allocating the budget at EPA, it’s important to understand the process of appropriating dollars. Designing the budget is a twelve month a year dance between the President, EPA’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer of EPA, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Congress. First, EPA compiles a four-year Strategic Plan (SP) with measurable goals to justify the basis for their budget. Under the 2010 GPRA Modernization Act, every federal agency, including EPA, is required to draft an SP for “a period of not less than 4 years forward from fiscal year in which it is published,” and publish it on a central website. Since the SP should reflect the priorities of the new administration, it is expected to be completed within one year of the inauguration. In a too-simple explanation of the process, the SP is sent to be reviewed by OMB and Congress, and by the following October, Congress approves a budget.
EPA’s current SP terminates in 2018, and so October 2016, the first month of Fiscal Year 2017, will see the beginning of the next strategic planning cycle. 2014’s SP outlined five broad goals: Addressing Climate Change and Air Quality, Protecting America’s Waters, Cleaning up Communities and Advancing Sustainable Development, Ensuring the Safety of Chemicals and Preventing Pollution, and Protecting Human Health and the Environment by Enforcing Laws and Assuring Compliance. A quick glance at 2011’s Plan suggests that the broad idea of each goal hasn’t changed a whole lot in eight years. The explanation of this is that each goal is linked to multiple objectives, which are linked to a monetary account. EPA’s Office of Planning and Analysis (OPAA) likes to think of these accounts as “bins” of money. You can’t change the bins (i.e. restructure the accounts), but you can change how they’re described. Even if you’re charging a pencil to a different account, it has to go through the process, thanks to the checks and balances involved in allocating government money. The Office of Water, for example, cannot simply dip into a “bin” if it wants to monitor nutrient disposal in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer has to give the program offices access to EPA’s Treasury Account, and OMB must approve the transaction.
The challenge with the Strategic Plan being a baseline for appropriated dollars is that the two, the Agency goals and the budget, should really go hand-in-hand. However, the SP is done before EPA knows the exact budget they will have to work with. When looking four years down the line, the Agency wants to be realistic, but not too realistic. If EPA accomplished 100% of their strategic measures, what is that saying about its goals?
Like many federal agencies, during the last administration, there were substantial budget cuts in EPA funding. Following the Budget Control Act of 2011, which raised the national debt ceiling in exchange for capping annual appropriations to federal agencies, EPA had to adjust its expectations. However, even with lack of monetary support, EPA is still legally obligated to uphold federal laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Recovery, Conservation and Liability Act). The economic stressors associated with these laws cannot be reduced as long as human activities put environmental and public health at risk. For example, the funds for CERCLA, which created the “Superfund” in order to pay for the clean-up of chemical and toxic waste sites, have not been taken out of people’s taxes since 2001. When no company can be traced as liable, the cleanup comes out of appropriated dollars.
Since programs that serve EPA’s mission are not legally allowed to go unfunded, no matter how Republican the House may be, the cuts resulting from the President Budget will affect human resources and working conditions at EPA before they affect environmental programs. During the 2013 government shutdown, every office at EPA was cut 5% by law. The Agency’s damage control involved David Bloom, the Deputy Chief Financial Officer, and Administrator of EPA Gina McCarthy, sitting down together to look at what vacant spots were critical and what office space could be consolidated. Employees of eligible retirement age were offered $25,000 to make a decision to leave a little easier, and an office in Arlington was shut down so that everyone could be transferred into existing rooms at Headquarters.
Budget caps aside, EPA is not slowing down its regulatory programs. In late June, EPA helped pass an amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – the first change to an environmental law in over 20 years. Just two days after the TSCA bill passed, OCFO was scrambling; Mr. Bloom received calls that the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention needed the money “by yesterday” to gear up for chemical testing programs. Adjusting budget allocations within the Agency allows EPA to continue to finance its longstanding obligations as well as exciting new improvements in legislation. “A lot of people think we continuously start from a ground zero budget, but we don’t start from the beginning every year,” says Bloom. Let’s hope that after next year’s administration transition, EPA will continue to build on what they have.
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