Capitol Hill critics quietly ask for help back home

By Robin Bravender | 04/08/2015 01:05 PM EDT

Even U.S. EPA’s fiercest foes on Capitol Hill sometimes come calling for favors.

Take Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has made no secret about his disdain for the Obama EPA. The Kentucky Republican has said he would use his post to do "whatever I can to get the EPA reined in." He’s now waging a war against the agency’s climate policies by calling on states to ignore upcoming regulations he thinks are illegal.

But early last year, McConnell asked the agency for some assistance. In a January 2014 letter, he put in a plug for some of his constituents — Discover Downtown Middlesboro — seeking an EPA brownfield cleanup grant to revive one of the city’s historic homes. He said he wanted to draw EPA’s attention to the grant application, "which I believe merits your full and fair review."


The Senate’s GOP leader isn’t the only member of Congress who publicly bashes the agency — particularly on hot-button political issues like climate change and air and water regulations — but quietly asks for help on environmental cleanups or responding to their constituents’ complaints or requests.

In early 2014, even with election-year politics in full swing, a spate of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle peppered EPA with requests, according to correspondence recently released to Greenwire under a Freedom of Information Act request. Lawmakers’ asks ranged from considering grant proposals to investigating air pollution concerns to looking into a constituent’s complaints that a pesticide made her dog develop seizures.

"It’s par for the course," said former Rep. James Moran of Virginia, who was the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversaw EPA spending before he retired last year.

Some lawmakers "have publicly called for the elimination of the EPA," Moran added. "There does seem to be a bit of an inconsistency there for when they ask for the EPA to respond to a need to clean up a brownfield or to invest money in better technology to clean their air or their water."

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said it isn’t inconsistent for lawmakers to support some EPA work while criticizing other policies.

"Calling on EPA to not regulate beyond its authority, and support for brownfields cleanup (within their authority) aren’t mutually exclusive positions," Stewart said in an email.

McConnell "criticizes things the President does, but works with him on others," he added.

The public EPA bashing coupled with behind-the-scenes requests doesn’t surprise William Reilly, who was EPA’s boss during the George H.W. Bush administration.

"To me, it seems business as usual," Reilly said. "I think there’s a lot of tactical positioning in anti-EPA remarks; there are just some places in the country where it’s red meat."

But for everything EPA does that "really antagonizes the economic sector," Reilly said, "there are 1,000 things where they just live and breathe the air that we have that we all enjoy … and without thinking acquiesce to what a good job the agency is doing."

‘Have it both ways’

Like McConnell, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) sent a letter to EPA in January 2014 in support of the brownfield cleanup grant for Middlesboro.

The previous summer, a subcommittee of Rogers’ spending panel had introduced a spending bill for 2014 that proposed eliminating EPA grants to clean up brownfields as part of an attempt to slash the agency’s funding (Greenwire, July 23, 2013).

When Rep. Darrell Issa was chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he subpoenaed the agency and even threatened to hold EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in contempt of Congress. And the California Republican said at a hearing last year that EPA has a "well-earned reputation for waste and mismanagement of taxpayers’ funds."

But last February, Issa looked to EPA for a favor. One of his constituents had invented a way to prevent sewage backup in residential and commercial buildings and to mitigate stormwater runoff, and he wanted to meet with EPA to discuss his plans. Issa passed along the request to EPA, along with detailed descriptions and illustrations of the invention.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has been a leading EPA critic on Capitol Hill, helping lead House GOP efforts to curb the agency’s authority since taking the powerful gavel in 2011.

Early last year, he wrote to McCarthy asking for EPA to fully consider a grant application from Douglas, Mich. The city was seeking cash to help redevelop a 7-acre site along its main commercial corridor.

"I thank you in advance for ensuring this grant application receives full consideration," Upton told McCarthy. He asked her to keep him "advised on the progress of this application."

It’s "no secret" that Upton has "serious concerns about EPA’s recent regulatory trajectory," he said this week in a statement. "The agency’s overreach continues to expand at a dangerous pace, and recent proposals are putting jobs and energy affordability at risk."

But, he added, "EPA is not a ‘one size fits all agency,’ and while there are policies that warrant concern, there are also efforts that should be commended." Upton pointed to his support for clean air and water bills, EPA’s Great Lakes efforts and Superfund cleanups. And he said there’s room for this Congress to find common ground with the agency on coal ash rules and chemicals legislation.

Illinois Republican Rep. Rodney Davis has blasted EPA’s renewable fuels policies and the agency’s draft rule to curb greenhouse gases from power plants. He said last year that the proposed power plant rule "continues the administration’s war on coal" and would be an "extremely dangerous path for America’s energy future and independence."

But Rodney wants EPA’s help in cleaning up a former zinc smelter in his district. The Eagle Zinc tract has been on EPA’s Superfund list of priority cleanup sites since 2007, he wrote to the agency last April, but "I have been informed that there is no funding available in the EPA’s current fiscal year budget for the Eagle Zinc remediation process." He asked EPA to give his office a time frame for remediation plans at the site.

Davis is "certainly critical of the EPA when they try to regulate milk spills like oil spills or farm ponds as navigable waters under Waters of the U.S. and has continued to try to bring some common sense to our federal agencies," said Davis spokeswoman Ashley Phelps, referring to a pending EPA clean water rule and a persistent rumor in conservative circles that the Obama EPA intended to regulate spilled milk like oil (E&ENews PM, April 12, 2011).

"But another part of his job as a member of Congress, is to ensure his constituents are getting the answers they need from federal agencies like the EPA, which was the case with Eagle Zinc," Phelps said.

Democratic pleas

It’s not just Republicans who have been publicly critical of the Obama EPA’s policies while seeking the agency’s assistance for local problems.

Last March, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin wrote to EPA’s congressional affairs shop to express one of his constituents’ concerns. A resident of Hinton, W.Va., wanted a moratorium on insect spraying in and around several rivers until environmental studies had been performed.

"I would appreciate your looking into the matter, and providing me with comments in writing that may serve as the basis for a reply to my constituent," Manchin wrote.

The West Virginia senator said this week in a statement that the federal government "needs to work with us as a partner, rather than as an adversary, when it comes to developing commonsense solutions that strike a balance between a prosperous economy and a cleaner environment."

He added, "Too often the EPA overreaches its authority and regulates what has not been legislated, however I am always willing to work with the EPA and the people of West Virginia to resolve any challenges that arise."

With EPA’s critics on Capitol Hill continuously looking to scale back the agency’s authority and slash its budget, Moran, the retired Virginia Democrat, said those letters from lawmakers might come in handy.

"It seems to me that if they’re going to be responsive to needs in the members’ districts, it’s only fair that the member gives them a little bit of the benefit of the doubt in terms of EPA’s priorities," he said.

"You shouldn’t be able to have it both ways — want to eliminate the agency and at the same time want the agency to eliminate the problems within your district in terms of the environment."

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.