A sunny day for environmentalists
In this time of political division, the broad story line of the omnibus spending bill approved late last week is largely a heartening one. With the Democratic leadership in full resistance mode and the Republicans facing a treacherous political climate in the fall elections, Congress repudiated President Trump’s extreme budget cuts in rare bipartisan fashion. In doing so, it protected a range of domestic programs the president had targeted for huge reductions, if not outright elimination, and sent an infuriated Trump scuttling off to Mar-a-Lago with yet another problem to worry about: a mediocre Congress making a lazy president look even worse by actually accomplishing something.
A cynic observing this unusual Capitol Hill lovefest could plausibly argue that it’s easy enough for Republicans and Democrats to link arms when there’s serious money to be spent. And it is: There is plenty of old-fashioned pork in this bill. Even so, it is hard to argue with an outcome that preserved and in some cases increased funding for vital health, education, foreign aid, infrastructure and environmental programs while providing a fraction of what Mr. Trump wanted for his border wall — the presumed reason for his withdrawal to his Florida fortress.
There is another story line within the broader one, and it too is heartening: the willingness of the Democratic leadership to stand up to mischief-makers in Congress itself. A bill of this magnitude — $1.3 trillion altogether, including hundreds of billions for the military — is fertile ground for legislators who wish to sneak in provisions that are unlikely to survive on their own and thus need the protective cover of a big must-pass bill. As a rule, these so-called riders have nothing to do with spending and are aimed primarily at changing policy or undermining basic laws.
Most of the most damaging riders in the bill were devised by Republicans and involved environmental policy. Among other things, they would have delayed enforcement of clean-air regulations, killed two Obama-era rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gases from oil and gas wells, weakened protections for endangered species and insulated the Trump administration from legal challenges to its efforts to repeal clean-water rules.
That these and many more riders were deleted from the bill is a tribute to Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Senate allies like Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Thomas Carper of Delaware, all willing to annoy some powerful interests along the way. Lisa Murkowski, Republican from Alaska and chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had hoped to torpedo protections for old growth trees in Alaska’s forests. Thad Cochran, Republican from Mississippi, had hoped for a retirement present after 40 years in the Senate in the form of a flood-control project known as the Yazoo Pumps, a bad idea that has been kicking around for decades and would drain 200,000 acres of wetlands in the Mississippi Delta so that soybean farmers, who have drunk liberally from the public trough, could plant more crops. Both he and Murkowski were denied.
The budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, which Trump proposed to cut by 31 percent, stayed even. Funding for energy-efficiency and renewable-energy programs, facing a 70 percent cut, went up. Money for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a vehicle for protecting threatened open space, rose to $425 million, far more than the $64 million in the president’s budget.
Congress’s generosity is unlikely to enlarge the cramped vision of the people who run the agencies most responsible for the environment — the E.P.A. and the Interior and Energy Departments — and whose driving impulse has been to roll back any Obama-era initiative that discomfits the coal, oil and gas industries. All in all, however, Friday was a sunny day for the environmental and scientific communities, which have known nothing but gloomy days since the moment Trump took office. It’s time they got a good one.
The New York Times