House appropriators yesterday proposed allocating $24.3 billion to the subcommittee that funds the Interior Department, Forest Service and U.S. EPA for next fiscal year, a level that would likely require significant cuts to a host of conservation programs, clean water grants, and climate change and habitat restoration work, environmentalists warned.
The proposed top-line figure for the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee's annual spending bill is about 18 percent below what Congress provided the agencies in fiscal 2013 before the sequester set in.
The allocation, known as 302(b), is also about 20 percent below President Obama's budget request and about 14 percent below current sequestered funding levels, according to Alan Rowsome, director of conservation funding at the Wilderness Society.
"It's an allocation that would have devastating impacts for our lands, water and wildlife," he said. "At these funding levels, we would see massive and devastating park and wildlife refuge closures, less and less law enforcement officers protecting the public, and almost no resources to fight wildfires across the country."
The funding for Interior and EPA would come from the House's overall $967 billion pot of discretionary appropriations for fiscal 2014, which is down significantly from the $1.043 trillion appropriated in fiscal 2013.
In contrast, the Senate plans to distribute $1.053 trillion among its 12 appropriations subcommittees in fiscal 2014, though it will not decide allocations for Interior-EPA until next month, a Democratic aide said.
The House's Interior-EPA allocation could change, especially if the chamber receives a new top-line funding level as a result of a budget agreement with the Senate, a House aide said. But it is unclear whether the two chambers will be able to reach such an accord.
The current allocation would put significant pressure on subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) over how to fund programs important to constituents including conservationists, park and wildlife advocates, clean water groups, states, and Indian tribes.
The allocation would essentially force him to cut an additional $4 billion from the $28 billion his subcommittee appropriated the agencies in fiscal 2013.
That 2013 budget cut EPA funding 17 percent -- dropping it to spending levels last seen in 1998 -- while significantly reducing Interior wildlife, climate change and land acquisition funding (Greenwire, June 28, 2012).
"No pun intended, these funding levels would make the sequester seem like a walk in the park," said John Garder, a budget expert for the National Parks Conservation Association. "It's difficult to summarize or estimate how challenging, how alarming these funding levels would be for our national parks and the people who visit them."
Simpson will be hard-pressed to come close to meeting Obama's request for roughly $650 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal government's main vehicle for purchasing new lands and securing conservation easements on private lands. The fund is a top priority for groups ranging from the Wilderness Society to the National Rifle Association.
Also on the chopping block could be wetlands preservation, state and tribal wildlife grants or cooperative endangered species conservation, which helps states protect wildlife on nonfederal lands. Construction funding for agencies including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service could also be deferred.
Simpson last month warned that if Congress continues to tackle the deficit through discretionary spending -- which accounts for about one-third of overall spending -- he may soon be forced to zero out funding to some Interior programs.
"Do we come to the point where we say there are just some things we're not going to do, and eliminate them and at least concentrate on the parts that we do well?" he asked at an April budget hearing for Interior. "That's a tough choice."
Cutting funding for Simpson's agencies is particularly difficult given the high fixed costs of programs like wildfire funding -- which consumes roughly half of the Forest Service budget -- and the Indian Health Service, according to one former House appropriations aide.
"They're going to have to figure out sizable things to just stop doing," the former aide said.
Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in April told Simpson his agency was "limping along" under sequestration cuts, which have resulted in fewer park police, reduced services at parks, more than $110 million in cuts in payments to states, reduced youth hiring and furloughs.
At EPA, 'death by a thousand cuts'
The allocation may also result in heavy cuts to EPA programs aimed at combating climate change and curbing emissions from sources like power plants or light-duty vehicles, areas the House has targeted in the past.
In its fiscal 2013 appropriations bill, for example, the House cut $101 million, or nearly a third, from climate change programs. The bill -- which never took effect because Congress passed a continuing resolution keeping funding at fiscal 2012 levels -- also included language prohibiting the agency from setting air emissions standards for several pollutants, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, that come from the "biological processes associated with livestock production."
The cuts, said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch, are ways for the House to scale back EPA regulations that it doesn't agree with.
"Since the anti-EPA forces in the House can't actually repeal the Clean Air Act or major rules to carry it out, they'll slash away at the budget. It's called death by a thousand cuts."
It's possible the bill could further target enforcement of emissions from power plants -- a late amendment last year blocked regulation of carbon from power plants -- and other controversial regulations.
Last year's bill also made heavy cuts to popular state water revolving funds, with the clean water fund getting $780 million less than previously enacted levels and the drinking water fund facing $89 million in cuts. The Obama administration's proposed fiscal 2014 budget also would cut a combined $472 million from those grants.
It's likely that the bill could also slash elsewhere from the EPA budget: Last year's bill cut 30 percent from the office of the EPA administrator and the congressional affairs office by 50 percent.
"In effect, House Republicans are attempting to overturn environmental safeguards by starving EPA of the funds essential to develop and enforce them," said Dan Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress.
The current Interior-EPA allocation may make it difficult for Simpson to pass his budget, given that it will be opposed by most Democrats and some fiscally conservative Republicans who argue the funding level is still too high, according to the former House appropriations aide.
Democrats have already come out strongly against the GOP allocations, urging the chamber to adopt the spending level set by the Senate.
"The insufficiency of these allocations is crystal clear," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. "Many domestic priorities would be slashed to levels far below even sequestration levels. Democrats cannot and will not support Appropriations bills that continue to gut services and investments critical to middle-class American families."
But the chances of the House and Senate resolving their respective budgets this year remain dim, which raises the prospects that appropriators will once again pass a continuing resolution.
That would extend the sequestered funding levels that have significantly strained Interior, Forest Service and EPA.
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