Pruitt defends shrunken budget
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June 19, 2017
Pruitt defends shrunken budget

At a hearing of the House Committee on Appropriations, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was asked repeatedly how the Agency could meet its obligations to protect human health and the environment in 2018 under the $2.3 billion (31 percent) cut the administration has proposed. This is a bipartisan concern since the EPA cuts will impact popular programs in virtually every state.

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Pruitt, who excels at providing indirect answers to sticky questions, essentially had two responses.

Better management as good as cash

First, the administrator noted that improved management can compensate for reduced funding, at least for some EPA programs. Pruitt used Superfund as an example. The president’s proposal would cut $330 million from EPA’s Superfund.

“My estimation with that kind of program is that it’s more about decision making, leadership, and management than about money,” said Pruitt, who noted that some sites have been on the National Priorities List since 1990, an indication of “poor leadership.”

But Pruitt also conceded that with other programs, the critical issue is about funding more than better management, cooperation with the states, and efficiency. One such program is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which received $300 million in EPA’s 2017 budget. In the 2018 proposal developed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the GLRI would receive nothing from the federal government. Eight states have Great Lakes shorelines, and since the OMB first proposed the Agency’s 2018 budget, no other cut has caused more concern among federal lawmakers.

In the budget hearing, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) reminded Pruitt that in his confirmation hearing, he expressed support for the GLRI. Kaptur specifically asked Pruitt if the EPA had included $300 million for the GLRI in its submission to the OMB. While not answering directly, Pruitt said that the EPA had expressed to OMB the importance of the GLRI. Kaptur apparently took this as a “yes.”

“I had a hunch,” responded Kaptur.


Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) also raised concerns about the 3,300 cuts in EPA full-time employees (FTEs) the OMB is seeking and about reduced funding to the states. She noted that about a hundred employees in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection are paid with federal funds. “We don’t get that money back if you take it away,” said Pingree. “I don’t see how more cooperation and more efficiency replaces those 4,000 employees.”

Pruitt pointed out that the federal FTE cuts would be achieved by attrition, mainly by not replacing EPA employees who retire.

Congressional direction needed    

Second, Pruitt said the EPA “can’t just make up authority and processes” to address environmental objectives.

“We have to receive authority and direction and process from [Congress],” testified Pruitt. “So when we evaluate steps we are going to take at the Agency, it will be focused on were the tools in the toolbox we have. And if there is a deficiency in those tools we will advise you accordingly.”

Pruitt’s statement here was specifically in response to questions Pingree raised about the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Agency’s likely effort to rescind the Clean Power Plan. Congress has not signed off on either of those climate change initiatives.

However, Pruitt made the broader point that the EPA can only function effectively when Congress provides direction. Repeatedly he said that the Agency will “work with Congress” about issues that concern Congress. Pruitt’s point is that if lawmakers believe the Agency is not effectively achieving the entirety of its protective mission, Congress should write or amend laws to provide the missing authority and direction to do so.

Pruitt used the example of the 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to illustrate how congressional direction can be effective. According to Pruitt, the amendments have allowed the Agency to make “extraordinary” reductions in its backlog of new chemical reviews. “This provides certainty to industry that as new chemicals enter the flow of commerce the EPA is going to do its job in the time frame set by this body and provide confidence that we can get those things done in an efficient way.”

A video of the EPA budget hearing is here.

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