Will The Deficit Super Committee Decide the Fate of the EPA?

Elected officials in Washington seem to be breathing a sigh of relief after the politically disastrous debt ceiling negotiations earlier this month. The House, Senate, and even the President are all on recess, alternatively vacationing and fundraising for the 2012 elections. But the deal reached between a weary Democratic Senate and a combative Republican House preserves further contention over the debt ceiling for the future, with a congressional “super committee” left to work out massive cuts to government in the meantime.

These cuts could impact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has been made a scapegoat for low job growth by Republicans. Speaker of the House John Boehner has long pushed for efforts to curb the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, and during the debt ceiling negotiations the House passed funding bills for the EPA and the Department of the Interior that would defang their efforts to protect air, water and wildlife from industrial exploitation. More recently the Speaker injected environmental regulations into any potential debt ceiling deal, saying EPA rules “cripple our economy and cripple the ability of employers to create jobs.” This is a sentiment echoed by all GOP presidential candidates; Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann in particular have suggested eliminating the agency entirely.

Under this atmosphere of anti-regulation, anti-environment rhetoric, many are now concerned much of the EPA’s power—or even its very existence—lies in the hands of the bipartisan super committee. The members of the committee were finalized on August 11, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announcing Representatives Jim Clyburn (SC), Chris Van Hollen (MD) and Xavier Becerra (CA) will join House Republican members Fred Upton (MI), Dave Camp (MI.) and Jeb Hensarling (TX); Senate Republicans Jon Kyl (AZ), Rob Portman (OH) and Pat Toomey (PA); and Senate Democrats Max Baucus (MT), John Kerry (MA) and Patty Murray (WA) on the 12-member panel.

Democratic Representatives Clyburn, Van Hollen, Becerra, and Senator Baucus all have solid environmental records as far as following the general platform of the Democratic party—clean energy investment, improved energy efficiency standards on vehicles and appliances, tackling nuclear safety worries, defending the Endangered Species Act, etc.—but do not stand out on those issues. Senator Kerry has a more expansive environmental record, mostly due to his longer tenure in the Senate and his 2004 presidential run. He distinguishes himself from the others through his support of funding for studies on sustainable fishing and invasive species management in the early ‘90s, but also only garners a mixed 53% rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Senator Patty Murray’s environmental record must be more closely scrutinized, as she will be co-chairing the super committee along with Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling. Murray has been a longtime supporter of the EPA, pushing in 2007 for the resources that would allow the agency to clean up Duwamish River in her home state of Washington and aggressively blocking Republican legislation aimed at taking away its power to regulate carbon dioxide just this year. This second issue is pertinent to the current debt ceiling debate, in which those exact powers given to the EPA by the Obama Administration are under assault.

The Republican members of the super committee, however, pale in comparison even to their unremarkable Democratic counterparts. Senators Portman and Toomey both oppose cap-and-trade legislation, and Toomey is a climate change denier with a record of opposition to all legislation tackling greenhouse gas emissions. Senator Jon Kyl, while not denying anthropogenic climate change like many of his peers, has nevertheless opposed any attempt by the EPA to regulate carbon emissions which he describes as a “job-killing” policy. He has also frustrated many environmental activists in his own state by pushing for the sale of public land intended to facilitate the largest copper mine in the U.S.—all without any environmental reviews by the EPA or the Bureau of Land Management.

As far as cuts to the EPA are concerned, whatever the super committee discusses over the next few months hinges on the willingness of Democrats to stand firmly on the side of environmental and human health across the country. But, taking into account the party’s behavior during the debt ceiling negotiations and the immense political pressure from the extreme right wing to curtail government spending, the continuing effectiveness of the EPA to soften the blows of pollution and environmental degradation is far from guaranteed.