House panel approves plan that could reverse cuts at EPA, other agencies

Source: George Cahlink, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, April 5, 2019

House Budget markup. Photo credit: Budget CommitteeThe House Budget Committee yesterday marked up legislation to set up spending caps for fiscal 2020. Budget Committee

Billions of dollars could flow to the Interior and Energy departments, as well as EPA, reversing spending cuts proposed by the Trump administration under a plan backed yesterday by Democrats on the House Budget Committee.

The committee approved legislation 19-17, squarely along party lines, that would raise discretionary spending caps for fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021, which the White House has used to justify deep domestic cuts.

The measure would do so by lifting funding restraints that were originally put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The bill could be on the House floor as early as next week.

Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said the plan would stop “extreme cuts from being implemented, helps prevent another government shutdown, gets us past the distraction and politics of the 2020 elections, and achieves stability and responsible governing in the face of recklessness.”

Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, the panel’s top Republican, countered that the Democrats’ measure ignores rising federal debt, fails to include budget offsets and does not contain any input from GOP lawmakers or the White House.

He said he, too, favors raising the caps, but only “gradually,” with a focus on more military spending and mandatory spending restraints.

Several Republican amendments to raise defense spending and freeze domestic spending were rejected by the committee.

The final legislation would set nondefense spending for fiscal 2020 at $631 billion, a 5.7% increase over current spending, and $646 billion for fiscal 2021. Defense spending would be set at $664 billion for fiscal 2020, a 2.6% increase over current spending, and $680 billion for fiscal 2021.

Additionally, defense accounts would be boosted by $69 billion over two years via increases to the Overseas Contingency Operations account, a Pentagon fund used for paying war costs that does not count against budget caps.

Democrats said if the caps are not increased, they would be required by law to cut $125 billion, or 10%, in fiscal 2020 from current spending levels or face automatic reductions, known as sequester.

They also argued the increases are largely equal — a term referred to as “parity” on Capitol Hill — between defense and nondefense accounts when measured against the proposed spending caps.

The legislation only sets overall spending levels, and it would still be up to House leaders to allocate the specific dollar amounts for the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund agencies.

EPA, which is marked for a more than 30% cut under Trump’s budget, and Energy and Interior, which face more modest fiscal 2020 reductions, would likely benefit from any increase in domestic spending.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the House Interior-EPA Appropriations Subcommittee, said earlier this week she would seek a “significant bump” for fiscal 2020, a request that could be granted under the proposed domestic spending increase.

But the House Democrats’ plan marks only their opening bid in what are expected to be long, tough negotiations with Senate Republicans and the White House regarding final, fiscal 2020 spending.

The Senate GOP unveiled its own fiscal 2020 budget last week. It would keep spending caps in place but included a provision that would allow them to be raised if a bipartisan spending deal is struck.

The White House has said repeatedly it would only support an increase in defense caps.

House Democrats opted to set the spending caps rather than write a full fiscal 2020 budget resolution, which would lay out more detailed funding and revenue goals for the next decade.

Yarmuth conceded that splits in the party over spending priorities, including the Green New Deal, made it too difficult to round up the 218 votes that would have been needed to adopt a budget by the full House.

Womack said the “failure to adopt a budget is a failure to govern,” while Yarmuth noted that the GOP, too, had been unable to pass a full 10-year budget when it held the majority.