In the face of drastic funding cuts and a hostile political environment, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has told her top deputies to rank which of their programs they deem to be essential and which could fall on the budgetary chopping block.
Last week, Jackson got an update on those priorities when she summoned about 50 senior regional officials and top headquarters staff for closed-door meetings in Washington, D.C., on Thursday and Friday.
"I think the administrator and the budget people want to get a feel from the leaders of the organization what they think is the best way to deal with" the likely budget cuts, said Charles Orzehoskie, president of EPA's chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees and one of two union officials invited to the meeting. "There's been work going on before that meeting, evaluating, ranking things."
An EPA spokeswoman said yesterday that such meetings are not new and that Jackson has held an annual gathering with her top deputies, union officials and others to discuss upcoming budget priorities since she was appointed in 2009.
But the effort takes on new meaning now that House Republicans, who are trying to undermine EPA authority on a variety of fronts, have proposed a 2012 budget that would slash the agency's funding by $1.5 billion below this year's level. Under the plan, EPA would receive $7.1 billion, which comes out to $1.8 billion less than what President Obama requested for the agency in his 2012 budget request.
Most of the reduction would come from deeper cuts to state and local water infrastructure grants that also were slashed earlier this year in the 2011 budget compromise. But nearly $500 million in reductions would come directly from agency operations and rulemaking budgets.
Orzehoskie declined to offer details about which programs the various regional administrators listed as essential and which programs fell into non-essential categories, citing strict confidentiality pledges asked for by agency brass during the meeting.
Officials at half a dozen EPA regional offices either did not return calls or declined to comment about the meeting when contacted yesterday afternoon.
"We will not comment on an internal meeting," said EPA Region 1 spokesman David Deegan.
One thing Orzehoskie said Jackson didn't linger on during the meetings was the high-stakes debate taking place at the White House and on Capitol Hill over whether or not to raise the country's debt ceiling. A failure to raise the debt ceiling could force the government to begin prioritizing spending after it defaults on loans and potentially runs out of funds after Aug. 2. Such a move could essentially shut down EPA and most other federal agencies as the government uses its limited receipts to pay off creditors, fund entitlement programs and pay for overseas military actions.
But Orzehoskie said that finding a compromise to avert a government default is a task that is even above Jackson's pay grade.
"She didn't really talk about that," Orzehoskie said. "I don't know if she knows any more about that than I do. ... Everyone's hoping it doesn't happen. [The meeting] was more the future. If we continue to get cuts how do we deal with them? Because I think based on the way this has been going lately everyone anticipates cuts."
EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said yesterday that Jackson's goal for the meeting was to find ways to ensure that the Agency "is providing the highest level of public health and environmental protection in these challenging economic times."
Orzehoskie said that if the drastic cuts that Republicans are proposing are enacted he expects the environmental protection component of the agency's job to fall by the wayside as funds are diverted to keep essential public health protection programs running.
He added that the group that met last week serves strictly in an advisory role and that it was understood that none of the recommendations that were made would necessarily be binding in the upcoming budget debate.
"Ultimately Lisa Jackson is going to have to make the hard decisions," he said. "She's going to have to point at a species of animal and say, 'no more,' or tell the tribes and states that they are not getting the funding they are anticipating or say the permits are going to take even longer."