Biden budget request triggers GOP assault on climate corps

By Emma Dumain | 03/19/2024 06:35 AM EDT

The president wants $8 billion for the American Climate Corps. Some Republicans suggested they’d rather burn the money.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) is one of the American Climate Corps' chief antagonists. Francis Chung/POLITICO

When President Joe Biden last week proposed that Congress approve $8 billion to enroll 50,000 young people in a green jobs training and placement program, the rejection from the most vocal conservative critics of a so-called American Climate Corps was immediate — and intense.

“Not to be dramatic,” the Senate Western Caucus — a right-leaning group of lawmakers keen on promoting Western interests — posted on social media, “but lighting $8 billion on fire would probably be a better use of money and time.”

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), who has introduced legislation to prohibit the establishment of an American Climate Corps called the “Cancelling Climate Crusaders Act,” H.R. 6849, told E&E News he agreed the program was, indeed, “that stupid.”


Asked about the Western Caucus post, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said, “[They] would know a thing or two about fires and why they’re encountering it without a climate corps, so maybe their leadership is not particularly what we should be looking towards right now.”

Opposition from Republicans was not surprising given the long-standing mistrust in the concept of a federal climate corps. But the extent of their animosity towards it this time around — the first time Biden has requested new money for the program since its formal establishment by executive order last fall — underscores just how difficult it will be for Democrats to ever get the GOP on board.

Finding some bipartisan common ground will be necessary for the program’s survival if former President Donald Trump retakes the White House next year.

The Republican National Committee listed the American Climate Corps last week as an example of the “woke BS” Biden included in his fiscal 2025 budget request, an annual spending blueprint sent up to Capitol Hill that never comes law.

Rep. Josh Brecheen (R-Okla) posted on X, formerly Twitter, that the $8 billion request was “buried” in the budget for “a radical green energy training program that will focus on ‘equity and environmental justice.’ This is what the Biden Administration prioritizes instead of securing our border.”

Democrats have responded to Republican criticism by suggesting that it’s largely driven by “this fundamental denial of climate change that is in front of us every day,” according to Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), the ranking member on the House Interior-EPA Appropriations Subcommittee.

“I think it’s heartless the Republicans have decided to take on this, of all things,” she continued, “and not give our young people the opportunity to fully engage on a huge problem we have to deal with.”

‘A bunch of climate activists’

The American Climate Corps is just the latest iteration of a green jobs program members of Congress have been legislating on for nearly 15 years, inspired to create a 21st-century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and ’40s — then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s salve for the vast unemployment rates of the Great Depression.

By the time congressional Democrats were drafting the climate spending package that would become the Inflation Reduction Act, the prevailing model was called the Civilian Climate Corps.

Popularized by progressive environmental advocates — and vaunted by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Capitol Hill — this framework would specifically prioritize work in the communities most impacted by the effects of climate change and pollution.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) record a social media video after a press conference held to celebrate President Joe Biden’s establishment of the American Climate Corps. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

After an initial $20 billion proposal for the program dropped out of the final IRA bill, the chatter around it quieted down until last September, when Biden announced the establishment of the American Climate Corps, where several agencies would work together under the umbrella of AmeriCorps to “train young people in high-demand skills for jobs in the clean energy economy.”

The administration has pledged that as many as 20,000 participants in the program’s first year “will gain the skills necessary to access good-paying jobs that are aligned with high-quality employment opportunities after they complete their paid training or service program.”

The application window is set to open in April.

Participants will be trained “to work on a wide range of projects that tackle climate change,” according to the administration’s official announcement, “including restoring coastal wetlands,” “deploying clean energy” and “managing forests to improve health and prevent catastrophic wildfires.”

But critics have seized on the description of the program, which notes the “American Climate Corps will focus on equity and environmental justice — prioritizing communities traditionally left behind, including energy communities that powered our nation for generations.”

That sentence has led Republicans to criticize the American Climate Corps program as “woke” and “radical.”

“It’s just some big, useless government agency with no real direction,” said Crenshaw, “just to hire a bunch of climate activists.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era was “about digging ditches, preventing forest fire — they had legitimate labor to do,” Crenshaw said.

“There’s no legitimate labor for people here, unless they’re hiring them to stop forest fires, which would actually have an effect on carbon emissions. But that’s not what they’re firing for. They want a bunch of starry-eyed activists and give them a job because they can’t get a job elsewhere.”

House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), another longtime critic of the climate corps concept, said Biden’s $8 billion ask was “not needed” and would prefer to use the money to bolster his new wildlife conservation bill — “America’s Wildlife Habitat Conservation Act,” H.R. 7408— which Democrats say could weaken the Endangered Species Act.

And Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a former Interior secretary in the Trump administration and now a member of the House Appropriations Committee, also insisted the American Climate Corps had an undefined agenda despite the website listing specific tasks as among the potential work assignments for participants.

“I do support Job Corps, and Job Corps does a lot of conservation work,” said Zinke of another existing, longstanding federal jobs program. “I’m an advocate for training on wildfires.”

‘A job with meaning’

Asked whether he thought the House Appropriations Committee under Republican control would ever allow any sum of money for the American Climate Corps to get approved, Zinke replied that he didn’t think there was even support for the program outside of Washington.

“I can’t believe America would be for it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s even a Democrat or Republican issue. I don’t think American is going to want to pay for it.”

Saul Levin, legislative and political director for the Green New Deal Network, pointed to recent findings from the left-leaning polling firm Data for Progress showing that 71 percent of all likely voters surveyed last October supported the concept of an American Climate Corps — and 58 percent of poll respondents identified as Republican.

“We’re not talking about the political class” in terms of who opposes the American Climate Corps, said Levin. “We’re talking about regular folks, … regular people who want to see the government actually improve their community. We pay taxes. Now, fix our roads, fix our bridges, give us healthy clean air and water, make it easier for my kids to get a job.”

Levin also said that while advocates want upwards of $8 billion go towards the American Climate Corps, the Green New Deal Network would settle for a down payment while helping to organize strong participation to show enthusiasm for the effort, making it difficult for a future Republican administration to dismantle or politically unpopular for Republicans to continue to thwart through the appropriations process.

The GOP has been unsuccessful so far in winning support for policy riders in spending bills that would block the program from going into effect, but it has been able to fend off more modest investments for the initiative sought by Democrats.

“Like so many things, when these programs go from theoretical to real, these programs are seen and felt and when you are taking these things away from people, it has a higher political cost,” noted Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters.

“It has become a go-to target [for Republicans],” she continued, “but it is really a misguided one in going after this program, which is answering so many questions, especially for young people, about, ‘How do I have a job with meaning that is a high-quality job with good wages and benefits?'”

Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a major backer of the program, said GOP opposition has led him to wonder whether Republican colleagues are doing enough outreach to constituents.

“I’d invite them to some town meetings, … and they might feel differently. Because when I have them in rural Oregon — deep red, deep red — people really like the idea of seeing young people involved like that,” said Wyden.

For Crenshaw, the program is “basically burning money.”