Buoyed by big victories, including the recent extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts and President Obama's call for a cut in corporate taxes, tea party leaders are still working to align their ambitious rhetoric with direct actions to rein in U.S. EPA.
The conservative movement has lined up behind one argument about the agency: Its regulatory reach under Obama threatens the economy and robs Congress of its rightful oversight and lawmaking powers. However, tea party favorites on and off Capitol Hill have taken different approaches to EPA's future in recent weeks, from bills that would specifically revoke its power over greenhouse gas emissions to a call by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to shutter the agency and replace it with a business-friendly "Environmental Solutions Agency."
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was one of several conservative stalwarts who took aim at EPA during a Tuesday town hall sponsored by the Tea Party Express, using it to demonstrate the overreach of the federal government.
After Bachmann told supporters that EPA emissions rules represent the president's push to implement a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases even after it did not pass in Congress, she asked: "Is that what the American people want?" The audience responded with a resounding "no."
But neither Bachmann nor any other congressional Republican has proposed legislation enacting Gingrich's plan to close down EPA. Another Republican who channels tea party enthusiasm, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), won kudos on the right for a plan to cut $500 billion in federal spending that would eliminate the Department of Energy yet cut EPA by 29 percent.
An overview of Paul's legislation crafted by his office blasted the agency for "work[ing] to enforce greenhouse gas regulations without congressional approval" but criticized EPA for its pace of approving chemical risk assessments and mining permits -- without questioning its overall authority over toxics and mining.
Asked about his proposal to close DOE while imposing a smaller cut on EPA, Paul pointed out that he would transition the former department's highest-level functions to the Pentagon rather than eliminate them entirely. As for EPA, Paul described himself as staunchly opposed to the agency's approach rather than its mission.
"I'm not for pollution," Paul said during a brief interview in the Capitol. "There are rules we should have."
Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a tea party group that has received considerable support from the owners of energy conglomerate Koch Industries Inc., has trained its ire on EPA's carbon emissions rules for refineries, power plants and other stationary sources. In a letter to Sen. John Barrasso last week, the group lent its imprimatur to the Wyoming Republican's bid for revoking EPA authority over greenhouse gases under several major environmental laws.
However, AFP has yet to send similar alerts for legislation that target EPA's recent retroactive veto of a mountaintop coal mining permit in West Virginia and the agency's plans to limit mercury, soot and other air pollution from cement plants. That focus on the greenhouse gas rule ultimately may portend a tea party-wide decision to narrowly target EPA -- or it may not, as FreedomWorks' vice president for public policy, Max Pappas, explained in an interview.
"When you have such a broad movement," said Pappas, whose group claims more than 1 million members and helped organize tea party activists ahead of last year's midterm elections, "it's not a think tank, so there's no president who can say what the official position is ... because there isn't one. There's this amorphous mass of thousands of groups across the country that share general agreement on free markets and fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited government."
When it comes to EPA, Pappas added, "there are going to be some different opinions, but I think there would be broad consensus on taking this first step and stopping the cap-and-trade [greenhouse gas] regulations. Secondly, I think there would be a broad consensus on stopping regulatory overreach into territory that should be done by legislators, because they are constitutionally elected."
The leading legislative proposal to address that "regulatory overreach" is the REINS Act, offered by Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), which would require Congress to OK all executive-branch rules with a cost of more than $100 million. The sentiment behind that bill was echoed by several lawmakers at Tuesday's Tea Party Express event.
"Legislative power of the United States government should be vested in Congress, not in executive branch agencies," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said, decrying federal entities that inhibit businesses by imposing billions of dollars of compliance costs.
"Yet what happens every single day in this blessed town? Well, we have legislation that never makes it across my desk -- never makes it across your desk. It just comes into being. ... So if they decide, for instance, they don't like the way you are emitting fly ash or ozone or anything else or if they do something else they just promulgate a regulation."
The freshman senator from Utah also pointed to legislation, which he is co-sponsoring with Paul, that would sunset regulations after six months unless passed by Congress into law.
Other speakers at the town hall said funds for agencies not specifically enumerated in the Constitution should be cut off.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an original member of the House Tea Party Caucus who also attended the town hall, said yesterday that Gingrich's proposal to close EPA was "an intriguing idea" he might be able to support. The Iowan also acknowledged that "repealing EPA is hard for right now."
King outlined several ways for conservatives to handcuff EPA without directly undoing its entire mission. "We can go in and chop off funding" for the agency, he added. "I think you'll see some of that. ... We can sunset some of their rules and bring them all up to Congress."
Another potent weapon in the tea party arsenal, of course, is its use of language to channel frustration with the White House agenda. Bachmann slammed Obama's EPA in the most direct terms possible Tuesday: "Isn't it enough that he's already taken over all the rest of the economy?" she said. "Now he wants the energy industry too. No, you can't have it."
Meanwhile, one lawmaker who may face the ire of the right-wing grass roots during the GOP primaries next year declined to comment Tuesday when asked about calls to abolish EPA.
"The EPA is way out of line," offered Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "They have been putting this country on its rear-end for a long time, and frankly, some of them are radical who control it."
Still, Hatch did not question the agency's reason for being. "There is a good need to have clean air, clean water and so forth, but they've taken it to the extreme," he said. "There are some legitimate things they can do if they do it properly."