Congress eyes increases for energy, environment programs

Source: George Cahlink, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2018

Congress is unlikely to back a Trump administration call to designate less domestic funding than provided in last week’s budget deal as it eyes increases for energy and environmental programs.

“You don’t have to spend it all,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, referring to the accord members struck last week to raise discretionary spending caps by $300 billion over the next two years.

His remarks reflect the view of President Trump, who said he only supported last week’s bipartisan deal because it provided a major increase for the military.

Mulvaney — who will testify before the House Budget Committee this morning — said the White House’s fiscal 2019 budget offers “suggestions” for where the additional spending should go, including $131 billion for domestic agencies like U.S. EPA and the Energy and Interior departments.

But he repeatedly stressed appropriators have the option to allocate less when they write the fiscal 2018 and 2019 spending bills.

Lawmakers, however, do not expect any of the dollars added by the two-year deal to be held back and are already weighing what proposed Trump cuts they may ignore.

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) laughed after the hearing when asked if he thought Congress would come in under the budget deal levels. “In 21 years [in the Senate], no I have never seen” appropriators come in under caps, Enzi said.

Pushing back against cuts

The Budget Committee’s Democrats expect bipartisan support for reversing cuts to politically popular programs, including EPA Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay protection efforts and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

“Here you go again on the Great Lakes. I just don’t understand it,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), raising concerns about the White House wanting to slash Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay money by 90 percent.

Stabenow, who noted Congress is ignoring the president’s previous requests to cut similar funding, said the administration does not understand that more than 40 million people rely on the Great Lakes for clean drinking water.

Mulvaney, who said he had visited the Great Lakes after Stabenow questioned whether he’d ever been there, explained the administration believes water monitoring work is best left to state and local communities.

“We would very much like to see [the federal government] get out of this business in the long term,” said Mulvaney.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), ranking member on the Budget Committee, said 7 million people stand to lose assistance if LIHEAP is scaled back.

Sanders added that the cuts would create “a situation where people will go cold. Some may freeze to death, and that is not what we should be doing in America.”

Mulvaney countered that all 50 states now have energy assistance programs that carry out the same mission as LIHEAP. He also pointed to fraud in the program, citing statistics that he said showed 11,000 dead people received LIHEAP grants last year.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) questioned a budget proposal to spend $220 million in fiscal 2019 to end work on the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, a venture long championed by the nuclear industry.

He argued the facility is already 70 percent complete and there is no better option for disposing of weapons-grade plutonium.

Mulvaney said the administration was concerned the facility won’t be fully operational until the 2030s. Instead, the administration is focusing on less expensive “dilute and disposal” technologies to eliminate the material.

Similar efforts to close or scale back the MOX facility have consistently been rejected by Congress. Graham, the top State Department and foreign aid appropriator, also dismissed proposals to slash State’s budget by about 30 percent, warning it would lead to instability and put Americans at risk.

Mulvaney said most cuts would be to foreign aid assistance for multilateral organizations, not for humanitarian aid. The budget proposal would eliminate nearly all spending on the Global Climate Change Initiative and support for the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund.

On the Interior front, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) warned against eliminating land acquisition spending for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses non-taxpayer dollars to preserve and maintain national parks, forests, recreation areas and cultural sites. He noted Colorado’s economy is heavily reliant on the outdoors, including areas benefiting from the LWCF.

Mulvaney said he did not know “off the top of [his] head” about the cuts to the LWCF but was quick to point out the administration was increasing funding for its payment in lieu of taxes program.

He said the payments to state and local communities for federally controlled land are a “big deal” for Colorado and other Western states.

Mulvaney, known for his quick, acerbic wit, was rarely at a loss for words during the hearing, repeatedly pushing back against lawmakers’ criticism of the budget’s proposed cuts and rising deficits.

But the OMB director left lawmakers from both sides puzzled by his headline-grabbing comment at the hearing that he would not vote to pass the budget if he were still in Congress.

The former South Carolina lawmaker later sent out a clarification that he was referring to last week’s deal to raise spending, not the budget OMB has spent much of the past year writing.