Rep. Dicks previews Interior spending bill conference, seeks pesticide deal

Lawmakers from the House and Senate plan to meet next week and finish the fiscal year 2006 Interior spending bill, which contains money for the U.S. EPA, the National Park Service and other agencies. But as conferees scramble to finish the bill before the August recess, they face some key questions. Are Interior and EPA competing for the same dollars now that they are both contained in the same appropriations bill? How much money will conferees provide for wastewater loans, park maintenance and other programs? And can lawmakers find middle ground on controversial issues such as pesticide testing on humans? Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), ranking member on the House Interior spending subcommittee, tackles these questions and more.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint, I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in E&ETV studios in Washington is Congressman Norm Dicks, Democrat from Washington state, also the ranking minority member of the House Appropriation Subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the EPA and the Interior Department's Budget. Congressman Dicks, thanks so much for being here.

Norm Dicks: Darren, nice to be with you.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's talk right away off the bat on the Interior of the EPA appropriations bill. You're in conference negotiations or at least they've started.

Norm Dicks: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: Give us a status update. Where are things right now?

Norm Dicks: Well, we're moving very well. Most of the work's being done at the staff level. There are obviously some issues that will be dealt with by the members. Obviously the biggest problem we face is a lack of money and an allocation that is below last year's bill level. So that has put us in a tough spot and especially with the -- we got EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund has been cut in the administrations budget by about $540 million. And this is the second year of that cut. That's the biggest dollar difference between the two bills. The Senate put a lot of money back in at $1.1 billion.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Norm Dicks: The House is at $850 million. I worked hard with the chairman to get that up to $850 million because it was below that. So we still have some work to do there and that's an important program not only for almost every state in the country but also particularly for Washington state as we try to deal with Hood Canal and Puget Sound issues.

Darren Samuelsohn: In terms of talking about timing just for a second. I know you're not the chairman of the committee, but can you give a sense? Will the bill, do you think, be done before the August recess?

Norm Dicks: No. The chairman of the appropriations committee, Mr. Lewis has implored us and told the chairman and myself, "We gotta get this thing done." I think we're gonna have the conference next Monday night at seven o'clock in the evening so people can fly back that day --

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Norm Dicks: -- and still get there. And I think the bill will be on the floor later that week Wednesday or Thursday.

Darren Samuelsohn: Is one of the reason that it's moving -- it was the first bill to move through the House --

Norm Dicks: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: -- the Senate appropriations bill, it's got some Veterans Affairs money tucked into?

Norm Dicks: That has made a big difference in getting this bill moving because there's $1.5 billion of emergency funding for the VA. The Senate is able to do these things because they have little more loose rule.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Norm Dicks: We couldn't have done that in the House, but we passed a separate bill in the House $975 million. Everybody knew that was too -- not enough money and it was done right before the Fourth of July recess. So we've gotta get this bill passed, get that money out to the VA. In our state of Washington we have a big backlog like 2,500 people who are still waiting to be seen at the VA hospitals, and this is just untenable. And the administration is for some reason and the majority party have always tried to underfund VA healthcare.

Darren Samuelsohn: And it gets put into this particular bill.

Norm Dicks: Yeah.

Darren Samuelsohn: It has nothing to do with the Interior approps.

Norm Dicks: No. No. No. It has nothing to do. It was just a convenient vehicle.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Norm Dicks: Well, but it's turned out it's gonna get out bill passed faster so I can't complain about that.

Darren Samuelsohn: One of the differences in the bill this year, and you mentioned this at the start is we have a reorganization that happened at the start of this Congress.

Norm Dicks: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: They put the EPA in an Appropriation Subcommittee that you've always worked on in Interior.

Norm Dicks: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: It's got you guys competing for money on the environment and --

Norm Dicks: Right. Exactly. What they did is they gave us, they put these two things together Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency and then cut EPA by $500 million below last year's level. So we are in a real tough spot in trying to figure out how to put money back into the EPA funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and at the same time not take money away from other important projects. So it's been a real test and the budget simply is inadequate. I mean we are in essence on a downward slope cutting 2 or 3 percent every year, and that's because of the fiscal situation and because the money's going to the war, it's going to homeland security. But on domestic discretionary spending there's a real squeeze to the budget.

Darren Samuelsohn: One of the reasons that the Republicans gave when they made this reorganization was they wanted to speed things up, they wanted to try and avoid the end of the year crash in trying to omnibus because appropriations bills haven't been getting done.

Norm Dicks: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you have any sense that this reorganization has actually worked and we're not see the omnibus this year?

Norm Dicks: I think they will work. At least a number of the bills will be enacted which is good. I support Chairman Lewis in his efforts and Chairman Cochran on the Senate side, both excellent, new chairmen of the committees. And this is the way it should work. We should get our bills done. It shouldn't be four people sitting in a room making all the decisions on an omnibus appropriations bill. That simply isn't the way to do business. And if the Democrats win the House back, we hope in 2006, I hope we can do the same thing. I'm sure that Mr. Obey and all of us on the committee will want to get our bills passed and do it early in the year and get them done before October 1.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think Republicans when they put Interior and EPA in the same bill wanted to see people on the Democratic side competing for funds and sort of enjoy watching you guys sort of scrapping over money?

Norm Dicks: The problem is every state in the union needs this money, and every state in the union is crying out especially on the Clean Water Revolving Fund that we have to have this money in order to take care of problems. When Bill Ruckle's house, who know lives in my state --

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure. In Seattle?

Norm Dicks: In Seattle. Was director of the first Environmental Protection Agency he had $3 [billion] or $4 billion of grant money. Now, all the money we've put out today most of it is loan money.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Norm Dicks: That money goes to the state and then loan it to the local communities. And every local community has got problems with sewage treatment, storm water, all these kind of projects. I mean the list of member projects is every member in every district in the country, literally, has got a request many of them multiple requests. We can't fund them all.

Darren Samuelsohn: On the house floor there was an interesting debate in terms of should we fund earmarks for member districts or should we increase the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund? It was something that Congressman Obey was pushing forward and you sorta had, "Do you wanna rob Peter to pay Paul?" How do you want to determine how the funding is used?

Norm Dicks: Well, what's gonna happen is the number of earmarks will be reduced substantially. The amount of money that will be earmarked will be reduced substantially.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Norm Dicks: And more money will go back into the State Revolving Fund which is the right decision I think.

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, in terms of the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund we've seen it kind of -- the administration proposed cuts over the course of the last couple of years and they say that they want to get this revolving at a certain amount over the course of the next 10 years and they think they're on track to do it with these proposals that they've been making of $750-$800 million per year? Do you see it?

Norm Dicks: But it's still no sufficient to deal with the problems. I mean the backlog in these kind of projects across the country is like $600 billion. I mean there's a backlog of projects waiting to go, and there's no possible way even with the administration's level of funding. I mean that may get them up to a certain point, but it's not adequate to deal with the problem, and I think everybody who's fairly looked at this realizes that. It's better than nothing. But we gotta keep the level at around $1.1 billion, and that's what we're gonna fight for in the conference.

Darren Samuelsohn: That was my next question is the House came in, I think, at $850 million.

Norm Dicks: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: The Senate went in at $1.1 [billion]. Usually you guys have to split the difference. Are you think that the Senate's gonna win out on this one?

Norm Dicks: Well, I think it will be closer to the Senate number than the House number.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Norm Dicks: And I wished we could do better than that. I wished we could do more, but you have to make it add up and fit under the allocation and that's about all we can do. Or we have to hit a lot of other programs which in the House is what Chairman Taylor did in essence was take a lot of money out of the federal program for Land and Water Conservation. And so we have a zero on those federal projects. Normally there's about $165 million that's appropriated for these projects, and this has made a lot of members very upset. But the Senate has put the money back in so we have to work that out. That's another contentious issue.

Darren Samuelsohn: I wanna jump to that in a second, but let me keep you on EPA for a second. Two other issues that have been raised in the policy side, one is on pesticides and the testing of pesticides on humans. The Senate passed two completely kind of different contradicting amendments. The House also passed an amendment -- one is a -- the House amendment is a ban for one year on testing. The Senate's got a ban and then it's also got a study. Can you give me any sense which way is the conference going to go?

Norm Dicks: Well, I think it's going -- the National Academy of Sciences took a look at this and I think Chairman Burns would like to see a compromise that's more directed towards the National Academy language which would be a little less restrictive I believe.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. And also on the other issue is engines and whether or not the small engines, gasoline powered engines that are used in outdoor equipment. This is something that the Senate added into the bill, Senator Kit Bond specifically. It's requiring a study on small engines. Do you have sense if that's gonna survive?

Norm Dicks: I don't know about that one. I haven't -- I'll have to check on that, but I have no problem with it. Senator Bond is a highly respected member, and I wouldn't see any problem with that personally.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's turn to the Park Service budget which has steadily seen a slight increase over the course of last time. Are we seeing a trend in Park Services increases?

Norm Dicks: Because myself and other members have been very concerned about the base funding for the Park Service. And here's the problem. The problem is the administration each year was not adding enough money to cover the cost of living adjustment for salaries.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Norm Dicks: They were putting 1 percent in. Now, they're putting 2.9 percent in, and the Congress takes it to 3.1 or 2.4 percent I think it was.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Norm Dicks: Then it goes up to 3.1 [percent]. So there's still a bit of a gap, but we're doing a better job. So the administration is putting more money in and we've added in our committee $22 million and the president's budget requested in another $30 million on top. And we did that because we went out to look at the parks and saw the National Parks Conservation Association. They did a very good job.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Norm Dicks: We saw that the condition of the parks is starting to deteriorate and that they didn't have enough money to cover their increased costs. So they were having to layoff people and not replace them. And so for the last two or three years we've been able to get -- last two years we've been able to get a slight increase which gives each of the parks the ability to cover their costs and so we're not continuing in this decline. And it's essential. I went out in my state to Olympic, Rainier and North Cascades, and I was very concerned about the fact that they were just laying off people and not replacing them. And at some point you can't get the work done.

Darren Samuelsohn: Are they laying off people in all levels in terms of with the park service? We talking scientists?

Norm Dicks: Yeah. Whoever left just didn't get replaced. So that is very random. And the superintendents were pretty candid with us in saying, "Hey, this can't go on. You've gotta get this thing turned around." And this has been bipartisan. Both sides are helping to solve the problem where both sides are working together on it.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you sense the public has any sense that this is going on?

Norm Dicks: Yeah. I think so. I think because of the National Parks Conservation Association people realize and see it. They're out there themselves and they're not as many rangers out on the field. There's not as many -- the restrooms aren't as clean, the trails aren't as well prepared as they used to be. It's pretty visible. And that's why Congress felt we had to step in here and turn this around.

Darren Samuelsohn: On the maintenance backlog that's was a President Bush campaign pledge back in 2000. The Congressional Research Service estimates the backlog right now at $4.5 [billion] to $9.7 billion. You frustrated with the way the president made a proposal and where we are today?

Norm Dicks: Yeah. He made a proposal and simply we have not been able to add the money because of the overall budget situation. This was a good intention, but we still have as big a backlog as we did. Now, we put a lot of money into maintenance which is good, but we're nowhere near dealing with the problem. It's still very large. And one of the blessings for the Park Service is they get some money out the Highway Trust Fund. The poor old Forest Service doesn't get a nickel, and so the Forest Service has huge roads problems as does the Park Service. But the Park Service gets a couple hundred million a year out the Highway Trust Fund. So they get some additional help which is good, and I only wish we could get the Forest Service in on that.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Let's turn over to Forest Service and forest fire fighting. We have a total of $1 billion that's been incorporated into bills over the last two years for emergency firefighting funding. Is there any way to permanently protect against like forest fire overruns in terms of costs that have been going forward?

Norm Dicks: Well, I mean the problem is we don't budget adequately to take care of the fires, and so what happens is when we have fires if the money isn't there they borrow it from all these other accounts and then they don't pay it back. And for the last two years we were able to put emergency money in of which there's about $400-$500 million of that billion still left. So we think, "Oh six is gonna be OK unless we have a real bad fire season." So this is not the way to do it. I like the FEMA model where they have adequate funding to take care of the disasters. They don't have to rob all the accounts and then pay'em back or pay back part of it. So the system is not fixed, but I don't have a legislative solution yet. This is something that, frankly, the authorizers would have to deal with.

Darren Samuelsohn: We heard you talking about this last week in the House Appropriations Committee here. I mean we're talking something similar for FEMA like how they handle natural disasters, hurricanes, earthquakes.

Norm Dicks: Right. Exactly. And so the money would be reimbursed automatically. And that's what should happen, but it doesn't happen here. So we need a solution.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's turn over to the Forest Service. Also in the Senate Bill there's a rider in there that would allow the Forest Service to sell off, I think it's thousands of unused administrative sites around the country in order to get at the agency's $5 billion maintenance backlog. Can you give me any sense is that gonna survive?

Norm Dicks: I have to double-check that, but personally I don't have an objection to that because if these sites are not being utilized it's like [the Base Realignment and Closure Act]. They use closure. I mean there are sites that are critical to recreation or some purpose I have no problem with them downsizing. And frankly the Forest Service has come down. They're not doing nearly as much in the timber harvest preparation of sales area and so they may have excess sites that should be gotten rid of, and I don't have any problem with that.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you see Forest Service-wise, I mean in terms of timber harvesting, it has gone down over the course of the last -- do you see that trend continuing?

Norm Dicks: Well, I think hopefully with the Healthy Forest Initiative people are gonna realize that we can go out and do thinning and pruning in these areas where you regeneration without thinning being done, and that it needs to be done, and it will help save us money in forest fires and also produce larger trees quicker than just letting it grow back wildly. And this is something I believe in. I think -- I know in Region 6 out in the Pacific Northwest there is a lot of thinning work that could be done and should be done and would produce money for the Treasury. So the problem is we don't have enough money to do it. And the administration's budgets had not requested additional funding to do it. And Congress has been able to do some things but we just don't have the resources to do an adequate job here, but in my mind it should be done.

Darren Samuelsohn: In the Land and Water Conservation Fund, you brought this up earlier, we got about $110 million difference between the House and the Senate, the House being on the low end. Can you give me any sense going forward Congress?

Norm Dicks: Well, I would assume that we will agree to some of the Senate projects. That's what we always have done in the past, and some of the projects should be done. These are one time opportunities to acquire important lands for parks, for forest lands, etcetera that are of very high environmental value, and the chairman just doesn't like planned acquisition. And the problem is if you don't have enough fund money to fund the Park Service, to fund Fish and Wildlife or BLM and keep the agencies moving in the right direction then doing grants of that nature has to be secondary.

Darren Samuelsohn: Talking about all of these things now. We've kinda covered EPA and the Interior. Clearly you've given me a sense of some of the things that you've decide. I guess do you fund one over the other? I mean who makes that call ultimately? Is it the Republican leadership?

Norm Dicks: Yeah. It's the staff and the chairman of the committee, make the initial calls and then of course everybody has to go along with it. But we only have a limited amount of money. You have to decide what your priorities are and for me I think the Park Service is a national priority. And we've got to make sure that's adequately funded. The Fish and Wildlife Service doing a lot of important work in the endangered species area also is a highly important agency that needs to be fully funded. The Bureau of Indian Affairs we have all the Indian health service programs and the money that goes back to the tribes which has been cut back by this administration and so Congress has had to add money back for that. But you have to make it all add up in the end so something has to give.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Norm Dicks: And land acquisition in this case has been one of the things that the chairman has picked on, not picked on but decided was a lower priority. And it's hard to argue with that because you've got all these other things that you really have to do.

Darren Samuelsohn: Congressman Dicks, I wanna thank you so much for being here. It sounds like we're gonna see you on Monday night, and hopefully it won't be too late of a night but thank you so much for being here.

Norm Dicks: Hopefully we'll get the bill done by the end of the week too.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. We'll be watching.

Norm Dicks: Thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time, this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint.

[End of Audio]



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