As the capital's debt-limit drama enters its final act today, the last two solutions standing -- one Democratic, one GOP -- would slash long-term energy and environmental spending to a degree comparable with the fiscally austere deal struck to avert a springtime federal shutdown.
The bipartisan alignment on knifing what is likely to be billions of dollars from U.S. EPA and the Energy and Interior departments' budgets over the next 10 years is drawing little notice as the debt-limit talks hurtle toward a hectic climax marked by bitter intra-party tensions.
Even as they focus on a splashier battle against restrictive policy riders in GOP spending bills, Democrats and environmentalists alike acknowledge that the deficit endgame spells doom for their priorities.
"We're fighting riders today on the Hill in the Interior funding bill for one year, but this sets up the blueprint for potentially a number of years," Sierra Club deputy national campaigns director Melinda Pierce said of the debt byplay between House GOP and Senate Democratic leaders.
"And it's dialing back funding to the place where it can have crippling effects on some of the natural resources programs, on programs that keep clean air."
One House Democrat leading the charge against the 38 policy riders in the 2012 Interior-EPA spending bill warned yesterday that many in his own party had not "looked past the headlines" to digest the practical impact of the spending cuts envisioned by the Senate majority.
"It's moving so fast that nobody has really focused on the details of any of these plans," Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said. "It doesn't amount to a whole lot of money, but it will cause a whole lot of anguish."
In fact, the trims to domestic discretionary spending outlined in both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) debt packages are significant on paper.
Reid's plan would cap that domestic discretionary pot of money at $1.045 trillion in 2012 budget authority and let it rise to $1.228 trillion in 2021, according to independent Congressional Budget Office projections. Boehner's plan offers a similar budget authority cap that tops out at $1.043 trillion in 2012 and $1.234 trillion in 2021. The two plans could yet change.
Both party leaders' spending caps would represent a cut of more than $40 billion next year relative to the CBO baseline set by the government funding deal for 2011 that averted a shutdown in April. By 2021, CBO estimated, the Reid approach would mean a $125 billion cut below the shutdown-deal baseline, or $6 billion more in cuts than Boehner's plan.
Those long-term cuts refer to the panoply of domestic agency spending, from EPA air-pollution monitoring to DOE efficiency grants to many other non-energy or environmental programs. But on a more granular level, the 16 percent slice taken from EPA's budget in the April shutdown deal could well be the shape of things to come for most non-defense federal programs, unless the final debt pact takes a turn toward the left.
"I'm very concerned with where we're going on this debt deal," Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Democrat, said yesterday. "Republicans are pushing for not just a level of cuts, but as much cuts as possible in the first couple of years."
Asked whether he would vote against a Senate Democrat-backed debt measure that promised environmental protection cuts similar to April's deal, Waxman said only: "I'd have to look at it all."
Moran was more ready to commit. "I don't think it's a fair deal," he said of the Senate Democratic outline, "and I'm not inclined to support it."
Given the likelihood that even a short-term lifting of the debt limit could damage the nation's iconic AAA credit rating, Democrats are certain to face a vise of pressure to back the Reid plan -- particularly if Boehner's alternative fails to clear the House in a test vote that could occur as soon as today. Yet their eagerness to drive a wedge within the GOP did not dispel the gloom among some green-minded Democrats over the draconian cuts now inescapable in the wake of the debt-limit showdown.
"We're in damage control at this point," Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said this week, calling it "a major error" to link long-term spending with the debt ceiling. "[The Reid plan] is significantly better than the Boehner deal. Is it what I want? No."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut quipped that "you don't see us doing somersaults in here" over the cuts put on the table by party leaders. "But we're bumping up against a deadline here."
Senators who have prioritized a strong EPA and DOE were less than sanguine over the trend of the debt talks in their waning hours. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) this week called for an up-or-down vote on the spending plan offered last year by the presidential debt commission, which he said "gets us where we need to go with a sense of shared sacrifice -- mostly spending and some revenue."
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) vowed to work "as hard as I can to find sources of revenue to sustain vital investments" in clean energy.
Noting that most decisions in the lengthy debt negotiations have been made at the top levels of congressional leadership, Pierce of the Sierra Club described many of the Hill's environmental stalwarts as "relatively powerless to change the tenor of the conversation and basically, at this point, braced for the worst."
After Senate Democrats handed a major victory to Republicans by releasing a debt plan that included no new revenue, effectively ending a months-long battle to put oil industry tax breaks on the chopping block, few liberal lawmakers or green advocates decried the scissoring publicly.
Riders a distraction?
If the $14.3 trillion federal borrowing limit is raised with the anticipated gut check to EPA, DOE and Interior, green advocates can look to April's 2011 spending deal as a harbinger of what is to come. When EPA took a $1.6 trillion hit in that pact to avert a government shutdown, Democrats declared victory after defeating GOP-backed policy riders, but environmentalists could not hide their dismay at the overall cuts to their dearly held goals (E&ENews PM, April 12).
The dynamic this week is an echo of spring, as conservation groups campaign against restrictive provisions in one House Republican 2012 spending bill while paying little public heed to the debt debate.
Battling GOP riders "has probably kept our focus off this larger debt limit negotiation that, in many respects, we should be paying significant attention to," said Alan Rowsome, director of conservation funding for the Wilderness Society.
"Because it does have long-term ramifications, at least on the funding side, that have the potential to be as damaging as policy riders or funding cuts on a year-to-year basis," he added. "If the years go by and you're stuck in this trap [of lower funding], you're not going to be able to get out of it."
Indeed, the federal budgeting process can leave agencies mired in a lower funding echelon for years following a round of steep reductions. The pattern cuts both ways -- when the April spending deal pared EPA's budget to $8.7 billion for 2011, it marked a swoon from 2010 spending but stayed more than $1 billion above the agency's 2009 levels.
Future allocations for EPA-Interior and DOE spending bills, however, are likely to remain heavily influenced by previous years' apportionment. That means that the April cuts to environmental agencies, which packed a billion-dollar punch to state programs for clean drinking water and water pollution cleanups, are positioned to have a lingering effect on long-term agency spending (Greenwire, April 12).
"I see a point at which we just can't enforce our environmental laws because we don't have the money to do that" if the trend being set during the current debt talks continues, Friends of the Earth energy tax analyst Ben Schreiber said. "A point where we end up eliminating programs that are essential, like money for renewable energy development."
Devil's in the details
Despite the storm clouds looming for energy and environmental programs, some Senate Democrats declined to predict a wallop. Overall discretionary cuts would have to be apportioned among agencies and could be steered clear of maximum punishment for favored agencies, they noted.
Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted this week that any future cuts would not necessarily come out of EPA or any other agency, steered instead through an appropriations committee process that would determine more detailed slices.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of Boxer's panel, said that it would be possible to, "within this [Reid] framework, preserve clean air and clean water. It's not going to be easy, but [the Reid plan] acknowledges the political realities."
Of course, Boxer and Cardin's ability to influence future spending allocations depends in large part on whether their party can eke out a political win in the debt-limit message war that might keep their hold on the Senate during the 2012 election.
There may yet be "enough wiggle room or an opportunity to use the dollars out there and use them wisely," said Rowsome, of the Wilderness Society. "You'd hope that those investments and continued support [would go to Interior and EPA] ... it does depend a great deal, though, on the makeup of Congress going forward."