With Republicans Attacking the EPA, 2012 Could Be a Turning Point for Environmental Regulation

GOP Assault on EPA Air pollution

Summary: House Republicans and Republican presidential candidates have launched unprecedented attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency, saying environmental regulations are hurting the economy.

Among the other things causing Richard Nixon to turn over in his grave may be Republican attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency, which the former president and Congress established in a bipartisan response to public demand for cleaner water, air, and land.

Since Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, they have introduced an unprecedented number of measures designed to weaken longstanding environmental protections and block the EPA from putting forth new regulations.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D- Calif., an environmental advocate, has called this “the most anti-environmental Congress in history.” The perceived assault has prompted the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Waxman, to develop an online database tracking the number and scope of anti-environment bills proposed on the House floor. According to the searchable database, as of September 2011 there have been 170 anti-environment votes under the Republican majority in the 112th Congress. The database breaks down this number by category, finding the vast majority of anti-environment votes targeting the EPA (91 votes). Some of these seek to block actions that prevent pollution (71 votes), and others to dismantle the Clean Air Act specifically (61 votes). Fewer measures have been directed at weakening regulations of the Department of Energy and Department of the Interior, blocking action on climate change and defunding clean energy initiatives.

EPA headquarters

Included among the more broad-based attacks on the regulatory power of the EPA is the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act. Passed by the House in September, the TRAIN Act “would create a special committee to oversee the EPA’s rules and regulations, and require the agency to consider economic impacts on polluters when it sets standards concerning how much air pollution is too much.” This would mark a dramatic shift from the current approach under the Clean Air Act, in which the EPA weighs only scientific and health considerations.

Similarly, the Regulatory Accountability Act, also introduced in September, would require a hearing for each new regulation in which the primary goal would be to find lower-cost alternatives to the agency’s proposals, ostensibly forcing cost to become the most important consideration in the rulemaking process. Finally, the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, taken up by the House in November, would require congressional approval of all executive branch regulations if they are deemed “major rules.” President Obama informed Congress on December 6 that he would veto the measure if it were sent to the White House.

Under this highly controversial proposal, congressional approval would be required of any agency rule determined to have an annual economic impact of $100 million or more, including job losses. Many industry and business trade groups support the measure as a way to decrease unnecessary and costly rules. The practical effect of requiring a congressional vote for each major regulation would be to derail the government’s capacity to adopt any significant regulations. There have also been a variety of proposals targeting more narrow categories of environmental protection, including bills that would postpone EPA regulations on cement factories, boilers, and incinerators.

In addition to the database created by the House committee, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., responded by issuing a report that lays out the bipartisan beginnings of the EPA and the economic and health benefits associated with policies pursued under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Using Commerce Department data to highlight the revenue and jobs created through environmental protection, Senator Boxer sought to “explode the myth that a clean environment is antithetical to a strong economy” with this report.

The Senate has a Democratic majority and requires 60 votes to achieve cloture, overcome a filibuster, and for practical purposes get any legislation to the president’s desk. This has proven a barrier to many of the bills put forth by House Republicans. There seems to be no end in sight for the assault on the EPA as the 2012 election cycle moves into full swing. Each of the Republican presidential candidates has put forth plans to minimize the EPA’s reach, recanted support for more progressive policies or associated environmental regulation with “killing jobs” in the weakened economy.

Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, who suspended his campaign Dec. 3, favor abolishment of the EPA in favor of an alternative agency that would be more sympathetic to industry interests, while Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have latched onto the idea that the EPA is responsible for destroying jobs across the country. Ron Paul broadly advocates resolving environmental issues at the state rather than federal level, while all the Republican candidates oppose measures designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions at the root of the problem.

Republicans currently control only the House, but environmental advocates fear a Democratic Party that might be too willing to compromise and that anti-environment measures will be attached to “must pass” bills in an election year. It remains to be seen whether shifts in the political landscape in the coming year will serve to stamp out or further ignite the anti-environment sentiment embraced by House Republicans in 2011.

Whatever happens in the short term, bashing the EPA is bad for public health and the economy in the long run. Richard Nixon and Congress knew it a long time ago and the same holds true today.