FY 2018 Program Spending Priorities Taking Shape

With less than forty legislative days remaining this year for Congress to complete action on spending bills, the shape of the Fiscal Year 2018 budget is coming into focus.  Over the past week, department and agency heads trekked up to Capitol Hill to face members of the House and Senate Committee on Appropriations to explain the rationale behind the $60 billion spending cuts recommended by the Administration.  Speaking before the House committee, USEPA Administrator Scott Pruitt defended the 31% spending cut for the agency.  The defense was met with bipartisan skepticism as committee members indicated that the blueprint for the agency is unrealistic.  In response, Pruitt suggested that he was prepared to work with the committee, suggesting that the budget request is simply a starting point.  Other agency heads encountered similar doubts about the breadth and depth of the requested spending cuts and the impacts upon programs ranging from nutrition to housing assistance.

Complicating the development of 2018 spending bills is the fact that both the Senate and House decided this week to move forward without a budget resolution.  The resolution establishes overall spending levels that allows for shared agreement on the levels of domestic and defense spending.  The absence of a resolution could make reconciling House and Senate spending more difficult this fall when final spending agreements must be reached.

House Committee on Appropriations Examines Administration’s USEPA Budget

On June 15, the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on the Interior held a hearing on the President’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).  Appearing before the Subcommittee, Administrator Scott Pruitt was forced to defend the Administration’s proposed 31.4% reduction in overall USEPA funding. Pruitt endorsed the President’s budget, stating the proposed cuts would still allow the USEPA to carry out its core missions. He stated that “regulation through litigation” will not continue at USEPA.  Pruitt expressed that he is ready to engage and openly discuss budget priorities with the Subcommittee as the budget process moves forward.

Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) expressed concerns regarding proposed cuts to the Superfund program, diesel emission grants and proposed elimination of air shed grants.  Calvert was clear that “these are proposals we are unlikely to entertain” and expressed to Administrator Pruitt the proposed budget is “untenable.”

Calvert did praise the Administration’s budget for including a healthy investment in water infrastructure and maintaining funding at current levels for clean and drinking water state revolving fund programs and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program.  Calvert voiced his strong support for WIFIA, which he views as a potential game changer in its ability to leverage additional sources of funding.

Ranking Member Colleen McCollum and multiple Democrats on the Committee stated concern regarding significant reductions proposed to Superfund and the termination of geographic water cleanup programs (Great Lakes, Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay).  Despite Pruitt’s assurances, McCollum expressed a lack of confidence in the ability of the USEPA to meet its statutory obligations under the funding level proposed by the Administration.

FY 2018 EPA Budget in Brief
FY 2018 Justification of Appropriation Estimates for Committee on Appropriations

House Moves Forward on Comprehensive Forest Health Legislation

The House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Public Lands held a legislative hearing on Discussion Draft of H.R. __, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, sponsored by Representative Bruce Westerman (R- AR).  The draft bill would authorize expedited management activities related to managing forests, including environmental assessments and harvesting of salvage timber after natural disasters, supports stewardship contracting efforts and would establish an arbitration pilot program to resolve conflicts related to forest management activities. The proposal is scheduled to be marked up by the Subcommittee on June 22. Testifying at the hearing were: Jim Neiman, President & CEO, Neiman Enterprises (Wyo.); Granger MacDonald, Chairman, National Association of Home Builders; Tim Freeman, Commissioner Douglas County Board of Commissioners (OR); and, Jim Furnish, Former Deputy Chief US Forest Service.

Chairman McClintock (R-CA) expressed that forests are dying due to a doctrine of benign neglect and that the legislation seeks to return resilience to overgrown, fire-prone forests through sound, scientific management.  McClintock framed the draft legislation as the product of numerous public hearings held by the Subcommittee, hearings that received testimony from water districts, locally-elected officials, environmental organizations and scientists. Representative Westerman stressed the importance of collaborative management and encouraged all the subcommittee members to offer language that would improve the legislation.

Ranking Member Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) labeled the bill as “irresponsible” and expressed her belief that federal land managers already have the tools to manage our national forests.  Hanabusa stated that the fixing the wildfire budget is the real way to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration.

Flood Insurance Legislation Moves in House and Senate

On June 15, the House Committee on Financial Services marked-up the Flood Insurance Market Parity and Modernization Act (H.R. 1422). H.R. 1422 would expand the availability of flood insurance sold by private insurers.  In the Senate, Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is leading an effort to reform National Flood Insurance Program, limit rate increases and encourage flood-risk mitigation programs.  (Summary of the S. __, the SAFE National Flood Insurance Reauthorization Act).  With the current authorization for program expiring on September 30, 2017, it is expected that both measures will move to the floor prior to the August recess.

 USEPA Appointments Surface

Action to fill the staffing void at USEPA took shape this past week.  Late Friday, Lee Forsgen was selected by Administrator Pruitt to become the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water. Rumors continue to swirl about the imminent appointment of an Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water with a leading contender to be David Ross who currently serves as Assistant Attorney General for the State of Wisconsin.

Administrator Pruitt has named Henry Darwin to become the Assistant Deputy Administrator.  This new position is to be tasked with the daily management of the agency and presumably is not subject to Senate confirmation.  Darwin served as Chief Operating Officer for the State of Arizona and previously was director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Pruitt selected Richard Yamada to become the head of the Office of Research and Development.  Yamada most recently served as professional staff to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Susan Bodine, the nominee to head the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, continues her march toward a Senate confirmation with a vote projected as early as July. The Office of Water is expected to be staffed with two key officials drawn from the state of Wisconsin and a former congressional staffer to key House Committees with jurisdiction over water and natural resources policy.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Appointment

Anne Hazlett as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Assistant to the Secretary for rural development, a newly created position. Hazlett will oversee the Rural Utilities Service, the Rural Business Service and the Rural Housing Service.  Hazlett has served as Republican counsel on the Senate Committee on Agriculture since 2009.

Next Week in Congress

House Floor

H.R. 1873, a bill related to electric transmission and distribution facilities on federal lands

H.R. 1654, a bill to expedite water storage permitting

June 20

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining – Hearing on collaborative initiatives, focusing on restoring watersheds and large landscapes across boundaries through State and Federal partnerships.

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources –  Hearing on proposed FY2018 budget request for the Interior Department

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on Innovative Financing and Funding: Addressing America’s Crumbling Water Infrastructure

House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development -Hearing on proposed FY2018 budget request for the Department of Energy budget

June 21

Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Interior-Environment – Hearing on Interior Department budget

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Environment hearing on Leading the Way: Examining Advances in Environmental Technologies

June 22

House Committee on Natural Resources – Hearing on the Interior Department budget