Environmental efforts, including Puget Sound, hanging in the balance

I must admit that I have an uneasy curiosity to see how Congress will manage programs that protect human health and the environment now that Republican legislators are in control of both the House and Senate with no concerns about a budget veto.

Photo: Matt H. Wade via Wikimedia

Most environmental laws and programs are the result of hard-fought compromise between Democrats and Republicans who somehow agreed on ideas to make the world a safer place for people and wildlife. Do Republican members of Congress really want to back away from those advances? Do they want to explain to their constituents why clean air, clean water and safe food are not as important as they once were?

I was fascinated to read that Republican senators and representatives in the Great Lakes states could be a key to saving federal funding for Chesapeake Bay — and, by the same token, Puget Sound, the Gulf of Mexico and other major restoration projects.

President Trump’s budget proposes to eliminate $427 million from these “geographic programs” funded through the Environmental Protection Agency. That amount includes a critical $28 million for Puget Sound restoration efforts.

“By targeting multiple regions for the cuts, the administration raised the hackles of both Democrats and Republicans, and brought together states that compete for the same pot of cash,” writes reporter John Fritze of the Baltimore Sun. “Lawmakers from a dozen states — seven Republicans and 28 Democrats — signed a letter in April to oppose the reductions.”

Even fiscal conservatives support the geographic programs, Fritze pointed out, and Republicans from states where those programs operate are especially supportive. That is most notable perhaps for the Great Lakes states, which were a major factor in putting Trump in office.

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, is a strong proponent of federal funding for the Great Lakes restoration effort, which received the most funding under President Obama’s last budget.

Sen. Rob Portman

“One of the realities is that not all of us live in areas where there’s an important body of water that’s being threatened,” Portman was quoted as saying. “To pull back now would be very risky.”

Similar coalitions have been formed by Republicans and Democrats in support of the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, which supports the restoration of salmon and steelhead in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. Funding this year is $65 million. The governors of those states — three Democrats, a Republican and an independent — are fighting to maintain the funding, as revealed in a joint letter (PDF 604 kb) to the appropriations committees.

In addition, the Trump budget calls for cutting funding to 28 “estuary” restoration programs across the country — including the Puget Sound Partnership — all part of EPA’s National Estuary Program. For Puget Sound, that’s about $10 million plus a match of state, tribal and local dollars.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from this state, said she hopes that Republicans won’t let Trump fracture the bipartisan support that has led to budget agreements since 2013.

Sen. Patty Murray

“I am very glad to see that it’s not just Democrats,” she said in a prepared statement. “Republicans are already coming out and rejecting this budget…. I am really disappointed that the budget reverses course on the bipartisan progress made in recent years and puts us back on the path of crises and dysfunction. I view this failure to lead and to govern as one more broken promise from this president.”

We hear a lot about over-regulation by government, but every new regulation has come about because people — usually a large number of people — were trying to make their country a better place to live.

I have no doubt that we will see significant budget cuts in the environmental arena along with some adjustments to environmental laws. Major shifts can occur when the American people put one party in charge of all three branches of government. But I don’t believe that President Trump’s budget reflects the views of most Republicans, let alone most Americans.

According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans say stricter environmental regulations are worth the cost, while 36 percent believe that such rules hurt the economy.

As you might expect, people who call themselves Democrats or liberals tend to support stricter environmental regulations, while Republicans and conservatives tend to say regulations hurt jobs and the economy.

Support also varies by state, with 71 percent of residents in the District of Columbia saying that environmental rules are worth the cost, followed by Vermont, 70 percent; Hawaii, 68 percent; and Washington and New Hampshire, 66 percent.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, just 38 percent in West Virginia and Wyoming say stricter environmental rules are worth the cost, followed by Montana, 40 percent; and Kentucky and Alabama, 45 percent.

Many of the environmental protections were originally passed by Congress in the 1970s, followed by various amendments since then. Unfortunately, the “partisan divide” has grown greater and greater through the years, according to an annual scorecard by the League of Conservation Voters.

“House Republicans cast pro-environmental votes just 5 percent of the time in 2016, while their Democratic colleagues tallied a 94 percent voting record…” writes reporter Marianne Lavelle of Inside Climate News. “That makes the 114th Congress the most politically polarized in the 46-year history of LCV’s Scorecard.”

Looking at the historical chart, one sees that in the 1970s, Democrats voted pro-environment roughly 50 to 60 percent of the time, while Republicans were in the 30- to 40-percent range. Recently, Democrats were in the 80- to 90-percent range, while Republicans were under 20 percent.

That seems to be a greater divide than that of the constituents of either Democratic or Republican lawmakers in a majority of states. No doubt that’s why environmentalists across the country are worried about environmental programs that could be slowed or stopped: efforts to reduce toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, controls on mining and drilling that protect sensitive habitats, protections for species at risk of extinction, programs that help ensure the safety of drinking water, policies that help slow the rate of climate change. The list goes on.

In this regard, actions on the federal budget will be telling. One big question is whether certain business and economic interests will push this Republican Congress beyond what most people want for their country. This is where political power will come into play for every line item in the budget, every environmental program funded by the federal government.

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