This week, the House of Representatives is expected to consider the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. This will be the sixth discretionary spending bill considered by the House this year. The bill would provide $32.1 billion in discretionary budget authority for fiscal year (FY) 2017, about $64 million less than current levels.
The bill primarily provides funding for the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It also includes funding for Indian Health Services (Department of Health and Human Services); the Forest Service (Department of Agriculture); and various other independent agencies such as the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.
A number of programs in the bill should no longer receive federal funding. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), for instance, should be funded privately and not receive funding from federal or state governments. Although the bill fails to cut some wasteful non-core government programs, there are important policy riders, including reversal of a number of harmful EPA regulations.
Interior and Environment Appropriations Recommendations
In February, The Heritage Foundation published A Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017, which includes an analysis of the entire budget with recommendations for the programs included in this bill. The following should be considered for elimination:
- EPA grant programs and information exchange and outreach. The bill provides funding for a number of grant programs, including $2.3 billion for infrastructure assistance grants and $1.1 billion for categorical grants for FY 2016. Overall, this bill provides $3.4 billion in EPA grants, about $147 million less than last year’s level. The EPA should not be funding Environmental Education Grants and other grant programs, such as job-training programs. Curriculum content should be set by parents and local school districts. Educational products produced by the agency are politicized and fail to emphasize scientific principles.
- Regional EPA programs. The bill provides $404 million for geographic and regional programs for FY 2017, $24 million less than current funding. Resource management should take into account the fact that environmental conditions will vary from location to location and from time to time. State governments are better positioned than the federal government to determine their unique environmental priorities. For that reason, responsibility for resource management should be devolved to the states.
- Underused EPA space. The bill provides $45.5 million for EPA buildings and facilities for FY 2017, $7.9 million less than current funding. Funding should be reduced by an additional $14 million. The EPA has been leasing out a portion of its unused space since 2007, achieving over $12 million in savings. According to a 2013 EPA Inspector General report, the agency could save an additional $21 million every year by leasing out all of its remaining underutilized space. The EPA should maximize use of public space and faithfully steward taxpayer resources.
- National Endowment of the Arts. The bill provides $150 million for the NEA for FY 2017, an increase of $1.9 million compared to current funding. Private contributions to the arts and humanities vastly exceed the amount provided by the NEA. Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ attraction or merit. Additionally, government funding politicizes art.
- National Endowment for the Humanities. The bill provides $150 million for the NEH, $1.9 million above current funding. Private individuals and organizations should be able to donate at their own discretion to humanities organizations and programs as they wish. Government should not use its coercive power of taxation to compel taxpayers to support cultural organizations and activities.
Below are additional programs that have functions that should be considered for privatization or devolved back to the states:
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The bill provides $1.08 billion for the BLM for FY 2017, $9.2 million more than current funding. The size and diversity of the federal estate and the resources both above and below ground are too much for distant federal bureaucracies and an overextended federal budget to manage effectively. This overextension of resources has allowed vast tracts of federal lands to deteriorate, contributing to massive wildfires in the West. While the federal government can simply pass on the costs of poor or no management to federal taxpayers, states have powerful incentives for better management of resources on federal lands.
- Forest Service. The bill provides the Forest Service $5.36 billion for FY 2017, $306.6 million less than current funding. The Forest Service (under the Department of Agriculture) manages 93 million acres of public grazing land and 10 million acres of private land within those bounds. Private entities would be better equipped to manage these lands and could do so more cost-effectively by opening up competition and the bidding process.
The bill would influence policy in a number of important ways. Many sections of the bill would prohibit implementation of problematic federal regulations that would have an adverse effect on the economy and individual liberty.
- Greenhouse gas and global warming regulations. Sections 417, 418, 431, and 439 of the bill would prohibit funding for the Administration’s Climate Action Plan. Last fall, the Obama Administration finalized greenhouse gas regulations for new and existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. While the regulations largely target coal-fired power plants, the costs of more expensive and less reliant energy will be borne by all Americans. Higher energy bills for families, individuals, and businesses will destroy jobs and strain economic growth. Regardless of one’s position on the climate effects of man-made greenhouse emissions, the regulations will have no impact on global temperatures. Denying funding for greenhouse gas regulations will also stop unelected bureaucrats from regulating methane and other emissions from oil and gas activities and from livestock.
- Waters of the United States rule. Section 427 of the bill would prohibit the EPA from using funds to implement the final “waters of the United States” rule. This controversial rule, published by both the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, would greatly expand the types of waters that could be controlled under the Clean Water Act (CWA), from most ditches to so-called waters that are actually dry land most of the time. For property owners, including farmers and ranchers, this regulatory overreach is problematic. If property is covered under the law (i.e., a jurisdictional water), owners would be limited in what they could do with the property and would be required to secure costly and time-consuming permission to engage in even ordinary activities, such as farming.
- Stream Protection Rule. Section 120 of the bill would prohibit funding to carry out the proposed “Stream Protection Rule,” which regulates mining activity near streams. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) proposed rule was signed last July and proposes reforms in the Stream Buffer Zone rule that aim to protect surface water from mining operations. There are many problems with the OSMRE proposal. The changes vaguely define permit requirements, monitoring, and stream classifications. They remove flexibility in how companies reclaim mine sites, for instance, by requiring reforestation even though wildlife organizations are working with the coal industry to provide grassland habitats for a wide range of species. They also ignore regional differences and the efficient state regulatory work that manages those differences. A better approach is to allow state and local agencies with specific knowledge to tailor regulations to promote economic activity while protecting the environment.
- Clean Water Act and “fill material” regulation. Section 425 of the bill would prohibit the EPA from redefining “fill material” or “discharge of fill material” under the CWA regulations. There is concern that the Army Corps and the EPA could redefine the terms in a manner that would require mining companies to secure Section 402 permits, as opposed to Section 404 permits, for various mining activities. While there are certainly obstacles to securing Section 404 permits, Section 402 permits are even more stringent, and industry groups have argued that requiring these permits would effectively prohibit numerous mining activities. Existing regulations provide more than enough environmental protection without imposing unnecessary restrictions that could harm the mining industry and the communities that benefit from mining operations.
- Social cost of carbon regulation. Section 436 of the bill would deny the application of the so-called social cost of carbon in regulatory cost-benefit calculations. The EPA uses three models (known as integrated-assessment models) to estimate the value of the “social cost of carbon,” defined as the economic damage that one ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted today will cause over the next 300 years. The models are extremely subjective and malleable depending on a great number of assumptions. By placing an arbitrary yet significantly high price on a ton of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, the agency would arbitrarily inflate the benefits by claiming that regulations will reduce CO2 emissions and their attendant costs. The federal government should not be using the social cost of carbon for any cost-benefit analysis.
The House Interior and Environment appropriations bill contains key policy provisions to stop excessive and unnecessary regulations, but it does not go nearly far enough in reducing ineffective, duplicative, and burdensome federal programs. The bill continues to provide funding for programs outside the core responsibilities of the federal government such as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Funding for the arts should not be done at the federal level, and conservatives have championed efforts to defund these programs or to allow them to receive private funding. With the debt level continuing to skyrocket, Congress should use the Interior and Environment bill to cut government waste and focus on essential priorities.
—Justin Bogie is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation. Diane Katz is Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy in the Roe Institute. Nicolas D. Loris is Herbert and Joyce Morgan Fellow in Energy and Environmental Policy in the Roe Institute.