What Does Trump's Budget Mean for the Environment?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in March. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in March. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Didn’t we just go through this?

In early March, President Trump proposed a budget that would have scaled back the federal government’s stewardship of the environment beyond recognition. The budget traded historically unprecedented cuts to the EPA for $50-billion boosts to defense spending, and it shuttered long-running programs that protect wild areas outside of any one state’s dominion, like the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The budget scared environmental leaders, who also assured supporters that such a plan could never pass Congress. (Among American adults, environmental protection is really quite popular.) And they were right. After two months of negotiations, Congress approved a bipartisan spending bill that preserved nearly all of the EPA’s funding while actually increasing support for renewable-energy programs.

In other words, all those Trump proposals—slashing the EPA’s budget by $3 billion, laying off 3,500 EPA employees, and closing many regional programs—never became a reality. Congress would not accept them. Trump signed the budget on May 5.

But that bill—and that fiscal year—will expire on September 30, 2017. So now the White House and Congress must go through the entire ordeal again for 2018. And it seems neither irresponsible nor inappropriate for the average news consumer to ask: Well, will this time be any different?

Trump’s approach this time around certainly seems no different in ambition. The White House’s proposed plan for the 2018 budget, unveiled Tuesday, adopts many of the same cuts that made the previous edition. Some cuts are even more severe. The highlights include:

  •  Trump wants to cut the EPA’s budget by nearly a third, reducing its overall funding level to $5.6 billion. On a percentage basis, that is the largest proposed cut to any federal agency. It would give the EPA its smallest budget in 40 years, adjusting for inflation.
  • This would cut the EPA’s workforce by 20 percent, removing 3,800 jobs.
  • Most significantly, Trump wants to cut by 40 percent the EPA’s federal enforcement office—the people who make sure corporations are complying with federal regulations. Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, has previously said that he believes that states—and not the EPA—should oversee enforcement of rules themselves. But Trump’s budget would also cut by 45 percent the grants that allow states to do that enforcement. These changes would almost certainly ensure far less enforcement of existing environmental rules than happens now, at federal and state levels.
  • The EPA office which determines standards for the amount of acceptable pollution in drinking water will also have its budget cut by half. (Earlier this year, the same office struck the words “science-based” from its mission statement, replacing them with “economically … achievable.”)
  • Superfund, the EPA program that cleans up toxic-chemical spill sites that have become public-health hazards, will have its budget cut by 25 percent. Such a cut will halt many cleanups.
  • Trump also wants to shut down many of the same EPA programs targeted in March. He would terminate the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Puget Sound cleanup programs. He would also close Energy Star, which informs consumers which home appliances are most energy-efficient.
  • Beyond the EPA, the budget also slashes environmental-science programs throughout the government. Many of these target climate change. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, has said that he considers climate science to be a “waste of your money.” So Trump’s budget cuts $59 million in Earth-science research grants from NASA. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research office would see its budget reduced by one-fifth.
  • But the slashed science programs go far beyond climate change. Trump proposes to end a NOAA program to research and better predict tornadoes in the south, and he also cuts $11 million from a tsunami-warning program for the Pacific coast. He also wants to slash NOAA’s weather-satellite budget by 17 percent.
  • Finally, he proposes to savage Department of Energy programs with environmental ends. While that department’s overall budget is only reduced by five percent, he would cut many of its greenest programs. Trump wants to close ARPA-E, the government’s energy-innovation R&D lab; and many of the loan-guarantee programs that support renewable-energy companies.

These are—to state the obvious—a lot of cuts.

Taken together, they advance a sweeping—and there is no word but radical—plan to roll back the government’s stewardship of the environment and natural resources. By the standard of the last 30 years of American politics, these are unprecedented proposals for the EPA specifically. For comparison, President George W. Bush (today considered no friend of the environment) proposed to cut the EPA’s budget by only 5 percent in his first budget.

Of course, Bush ran as a compassionate conservative; Trump promised during his campaign to abolish the EPA “in almost every form.” And this budget—while not zeroing out the agency—does point to how the White House could effectively knee-cap it. You cannot cut funding for the EPA office of enforcement by 40 percent, while slashing enforcement grants for states by 45 percent, and not expect to see a dramatic increase in unlawful pollution.

And yet. Trump can be as ambitious as he fancies in this document, because his plans are still extremely unlikely to go anywhere. As my colleague Annie Lowrey wrote in March, any federal budget passed before 2021 has to meet certain criteria created six years ago as part of the Budget Control Act. That law—usually called “sequestration”—set certain automatic spending cuts into effect. It also prohibited increasing defense spending while cutting non-defense discretionary spending. This is exactly what Trump proposes to do in 2018.

Congress can get around those rules, but it would need to clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate. That means that Republican leaders will need some Democrats in the Senate to help them shepherd a budget through. And Senate Democrats will not agree to a 30-percent cut to the EPA.

And there is even some mild Republican opposition to some of these cuts. Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, wants to save the Great Lakes cleanup program. And it’s unlikely the 16 senators from states that touch the lakes would let it die.

But Republicans may still try to get many of smaller cuts through. Paul Ryan said Tuesday that “the aspiration and the goal [of this budget] is right on the target.” The budget hacks so far into the social safety net—Medicaid would be cut 47 percent by 2027—that Democrats may have to cede environmental ground to preserve some semblance of anti-poverty programs. And any cuts to the EPA that Republicans propose—even if they exceed the Bush 5-percent reduction—will seem moderate compared to Trump’s proposed lopping.

And even if the budget preserves Obama-era funding for the EPA, the agency won’t necessarily go about its Obama-era work. Many of Pruitt’s goals for the agency will require plenty of policy-writing staff. And elsewhere he can accomplish his means by other ends. For instance, even if the entire enforcement division survives, Pruitt can order the agency to hinder actual enforcement. There’s evidence he’s already doing exactly that.

Which is to say: None of the disclaimers—about Congressional intent, about political reality—make Trump’s proposal any less striking. This budget proposal has a clear goal. If he had the power, Donald Trump would allow polluters to spew carbon and chemicals into the air and water, muzzle the science that identifies why that’s a problem, and cut off the research and development which is finding a more renewable way of generating power.

As I wrote last go-round, Trump’s budget remains a kind of fiduciary fan fiction for Freedom Caucus conservatives, who can fantasize about a skinnier government without ever living with the political consequences. So even if it never come to pass, it’s worth noting: This is what they want.

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