The fiscal cliff. Sequestration. Lame duck session. These are terms that Americans have been hearing with regularity since the election. The conversation will be ratcheted up during December, as the clock ticks and the American public waits to see if the President and Congress can reach a resolution.
People understand that the stakes are high, but they may not be sure in what way. In trying to get a handle on how the fiscal cliff would impact environmental concerns, I reached out to Chris Hellman, Senior Research Analyst at the National Priorities Project. He gave me a basic primer on the different elements of the equation.
Hellman explained that during the final month of 2012, the "lame duck" Congress--comprised of numerous lawmakers who were not re-elected--might choose not to do the hard work of solidifying a plan and striking a deal. Rather, they may opt to punt the problem over to the incoming Congress. If so, that is where sequestration comes in. To deal with the budget, a comprehensive 8.2 percent cut will go into effect. Hellman qualified that option as "sweeping, mindless, across- the-board cuts that don't discriminate against what is meritorious." Why? Simply because it will affect national programs ranging from school lunches provided to children in need--to the running and operating of national parks.
In the case of environmental enforcement, Hellman told me that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees could be cut. This will make existing laws more difficult to implement, and will engender a "backslide" of the progress made on environmental legislation.
The same day I spoke with Hellman, I heard President Obama address a crowd. He underscored, "This debate is not just about numbers. It's about getting the long term deficit under control." The White House Office of Management and Budget report dated September 14, 2012 (OMB Report Pursuant To The Sequestration Transparency Act Of 2012) asserts in its introduction:
"In August 2011, bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate voted for the threat of sequestration as a mechanism to force Congress to act on further deficit reduction. The specter of harmful across-the-board cuts to defense and nondefense programs was intended to drive both sides to compromise. The sequestration itself was never intended to be implemented. The Administration strongly believes that sequestration is bad policy, and that Congress can and should take action to avoid it by passing a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction package."
It was mind boggling to see the extent of the cuts included. The OMB has predicted that under sequestration, the EPA will be cut by $716 million in 2013. (The EPA budget that was enacted in fiscal year 2012, as per the most recently available data, was $8.449 billion.)
I discussed the ripple effects of automatic spending cuts with Jessica Goad, from the Center for American Progress. She pointed to the possible closure of National Parks; an impact on the NOAA's National Weather Service forecasting service--of particular importance with the recent spate of extreme weather; the impeding of regulations on the books defining standards for clean air and water designed to protect the public health. Goad noted, "It shows why government is important to the environment."
Stats from a fact sheet Goad forwarded me compiled by members of the environmental community included the following items of concern:
Clean Water: Under sequestration, contaminated waters will pose a substantial threat to the public health.
EPA Research: Original scientific research will be cut. This would include studies conducted to determine pollution levels that affect public health and analysis examining potential environmental connections to autism, asthma, and toxins. Actions monitoring of the effects of oil and gas drilling to hazardous air pollutants that EPA is regulating under the CAA . Safety assessment of pesticides, consumer products, and chemicals -- especially those of new technologies. (Industry is not required to test for health hazards).
Impact to Renewable Energy: OMB predicts a cut of $148 million to the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program.
I checked in with Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del), who as Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety has been proactive on clean air laws, climate change awareness, and other top environmental concerns. Via e-mail, he shared his thoughts on the fiscal cliff and the environmental agenda. He wrote:
"Congress and the President must work together to prevent harmful cuts to vital programs and to prevent drastic tax increases for all Americans from taking effect. I am encouraged that President Obama and Congressional leaders are engaging in negotiations to try to reach consensus on a plan that would avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff' that many economists believe would throw our country back into recession. I believe we need to stop kicking the can down the road and come to the table together in good faith, roll up our sleeves, and show the world that we are still capable of solving big problems. If we don't, we will see serious repercussions not only in our pocketbooks--but also in our efforts to protect the environment. Such drastic spending cuts threaten to reduce the government's ability to enforce environmental regulations and may limit our ability to invest in new green technologies. Funding decreases to these programs would not only hurt our economy and environment today, but would also be detrimental to what we pass on to future generations. We have made important steps toward protecting our environment over the past several years, and we must continue to work together to maintain these vital programs. That's why we must avert the "fiscal cliff' and do what's right for our nation now and for decades to come."
Big problems deserve big answers. Let's hope Sen. Carper's Congressional colleagues are in agreement, and don't toss our children's environmental legacy off the cliff.