Budget Battle Distracts From Anti-Environmental Cuts

As the budget battle surrounding the debt ceiling lurches forward in Washington, we must be wary of getting so caught up in the political back and forth that we miss the devils promulgating in the details. Efforts by special interests and congressmen to sneak devastating anti-environmental legislation under the nose of a distracted public are advancing at an alarming pace and should be quashed as soon as possible.

In the last few decades, the practice of budgetary legislation has moved almost exclusively into the format of omnibus legislation: Thousand-page bills that seek to establish funding for an entity or agency in one fell swoop so as to avoid endless bickering over bits and pieces.

Unfortunately, while effectively dodging the problems inherent in endless debate over details, the practice of single-bill budgeting has created an environment rife with sneaking special interest benefits into the folds between long-standing statutory provisions.

Small amendments and additions, often called “riders,” hidden in the omnibus appropriation bills flying around Congress are set to do unbelievable damage to a variety of vital areas, particularly environmental protection.

In the most recent appropriation bill for the Interior Department, Chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) inserted language that would outright ban the Department of Interior from designating newly endangered species of plants or animals.

That’s right, if the language passes as is, the federal entities tasked with protecting vulnerable species will be unable to lift a finger to prevent or even slow extinction.

If this idea sounds absolutely nuts, that is because it is.

There are currently more than 260 candidate species set to be considered for listing due to their imminent potential for extinction. Under Simpson’s proposed language, those species would be left to fend for themselves against developers bulldozing their habitats and polluting their food and water sources (not to mention outright killing them at will). Unsurprisingly, Simpson’s top donors are a collection of energy companies, construction and development firms, and big agribusiness entities.

This lunacy is unfortunately only one example of many. Other proposed changes would ban citizen organizations from challenging government delisting of endangered species, lift requirements on factory farmers to ensure their environmental impact is within statutorily allowable limits, weakens air pollution regulation of the oil and gas industry, and exempts entire industries from the requirements of the Clean Water Act (which ensures that their actions do not pollute drinking water).

Certainly, in a time of fiscal instability and budget crisis, there are more salient issues than environmental protections. Who cares about the plight of the gray wolf when unemployment is still hovering at 9.2%, right?

Unfortunately, this sort of short-sightedness sets us up for much larger problems down the road. Anyone who remembers middle school science can appreciate the havoc that the extinction of a species can have on a food chain and the environment.

Moreover, beyond the irreversible consequences of losing species by the hundreds, the poisoning of our air and water should be an evil whose prevention is at the top of our government’s priority list. If we’re talking about basic government responsibilities, I’d say ensuring that developers and strip-miners do not poison our nation’s water supply is a fairly important goal, and this is coming from a libertarian.

Besides the importance of maintaining an environment that can actually sustain life, the budgetary realities of the situation need to be more honestly presented; lifting environmental regulation on businesses under the guise of tightening our belts is intentionally misleading and intellectually dishonest.

Should we look at the Department of the Interior for potential cost savings and elimination of redundant or non-critical programs? Absolutely, but for perspective’s sake let us consider that the entire budget for the Interior Department is barely 1.8% of the annual defense budget.

If we are deciding whether we should ensure clean drinking water for another year or continue funding a legacy weapon system that has not seen use since the Gulf War's Desert Storm, I would hope the choice would be a fairly straightforward one.

Unfortunately, in a political climate as divided and panic-driven as the one we face today, it is easy for us to lose track of the sausage-making going on in subcommittee rooms around the Hill. Special interests know this and are funneling money as quickly as they can to their legislators of choice in order to strip the regulations seen as most inconvenient.

We saw a particularly tangible example of this in the government shutdown budget battle in early April. While the federal government averted total shutdown, the budget deal gutted many public services in the District of Columbia and throughout the states.

Now, under cover of the debt ceiling cacophony, special interests are attempting to carry out a similar coup against environmental protections and clean air and water standards. Allowing them to succeed would put us on track to join the endangered species list sooner than we’d like. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Mark Kogan

Mark is a lawyer and Mic contributor living in Washington, D.C.

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