Over the past two days, it seems as though Republicans have been attempting to strike back at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ regulatory program. On Wednesday, the Subcommittee on Water and the Environment voted to recommend the passage of a bill that would limit the time period during which the EPA could retroactively veto a permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. On Thursday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee not only passed that bill (H.R. 4854), but also passed another which did not limit but prohibited the EPA and the Army Corps from interfering in state and federal water management plans (H.R. 5078).
This came after an unfortunate incident during which the EPA had to exercise its power under the Clean Water Act of 1972 to retroactively veto permits which the Army Corps of Engineers had already issued to what they believed to be a qualified candidate and their project. This is a power which they have rarely exercised, but it ended up completely ruining plans for a new coal mine in Representative Nick Rahall’s (D-W.Va) district, costing him jobs that would have earned him a lot more votes that year.
The EPA has also become entangled in a controversy regarding water usage in southern Florida and the Everglades. Their entanglement was deemed unwanted by HR 5078. However unlikely it is that these resolutions will become laws, they have sent a message to these agencies: play nice or butt out.
Democrats rallied around both the EPA and the Army Corps during the hearings. Ralph Nadler (D-N.Y.) accused his Republican “colleagues” of blowing the situation out of proportion and of basically attempting to change national policy because one or two of their projects were derailed by the actions of these agencies. The Republicans and their Democratic allies seemed to want to strike back at them rather than reform them, he claimed.
Tim Bishop, another Democrat from New York, also made it clear that he did not support these resolutions. He first refused to accept the premise put forth by both a member of his own party and a Republican that the EPA had expanded its authority, citing the actual law and the various legal challenges which it has spawned over the last 30 years as evidence. He then argued that arbitrarily restricting their behavior would make it much harder for the agency to accomplish its goal, which he did not appear to believe that people wanted.
Due to the extremely restrictive measures those resolutions would enact if signed into, law it seems very likely that they were meant more as a message than an attempt at emasculating either agency. It just goes to show how entrenched certain interests are in both West Virginia and Florida as well as their ability to exert influence over both Republicans and Democrats in seemingly the same proportion. Florida wants water and cheap land for its farmers and cattle ranchers and also needs permits for its limestone miners who work within the Everglades.
The number of times the state has bumped heads with these agencies over such issues is a relatively large number. By voting for a bill which basically removes their authority over state law, the representative from Florida was basically firing a warning shot at the agency. In West Virginia, the only thing that seems to be keeping that state together is coal. That means that if an agency or group of agencies is actively getting in the way of coal exploitation, West Virginia’s representative has to make sure they are neutralized.
Although both committees seemed at times livid and bloodthirsty, neither agency is likely shaking in their proverbial boots. Both have extensive experience in these harsh political climates where being struck out on and cast under the proverbial bus is very common. They know exactly what the Republicans (and the Democrats from West Virginia) in Congress can and cannot do as well as what they will attempt to do from years of dealing with the legislature. The Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA have persisted through several administrations and policy agendas, which has made them very good at calling the bluffs of politicians like these.
By Andrew Waddell