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TipSheet: Governing May Not Come Naturally to Trump Agencies in '18
This special TipSheet is one in a series of reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the next year as part of the new “2018 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report.
The President Donald Trump-GOP effort to govern, an effort that has been less than smooth (government shutdown, anyone?), will continue to feature in big stories in 2018, including those about the environment.
- Will the Republican-led Congress cut environment and energy spending as much as the Trump White House has called for?
- Will downsizing of agencies succeed and will it weaken environmental protections?
- Will politically driven reorganization efforts hamstring agencies’ abilities to do the people’s business?
- Will iron determination to help the fossil-fuel-energy industry overcome an apparent misunderstanding of how the industry works?
The Trump administration has in some ways laid out an agenda for 2018 — so all even the least ambitious journalists may need to do is to cover whether that agenda is getting done. But there are stated agendas and unstated agendas. To unravel what one GOP faction wants when another faction wants the opposite will take some effort.
Push and pull over Interior reorganization?
Consider, for example, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s reorganization plan … or plan-to-be. Most people first heard about the possible rollout of a reorganization plan for the 70,000 employees in the Department of Interior, or DOI, in a Jan. 10 Washington Post article (may require subscription). But the fun is just starting, and the inevitable struggle is likely to last through 2018 and beyond.
U.S. Geological Survey scientists and volunteers rescue sea turtles from unusually cold waters in St. Joseph Bay, Fla., earlier this month. Under a possible reorganization, the science-focused agency could be lumped in with Interior Department agencies that focus, for instance, on the promotion of offshore drilling. Photo: USGS.
People and politicians in much of the mountain West (Trump country) may well support moving control of public lands westward from Washington, D.C. But it’s not that simple. DOI has nine different bureaus for a reason; each does a different job requiring different competence. Zinke seems to want to throw that structure out the window and replace it with control by regional offices.
News media may naively parrot Zinke’s notion that Interior’s organization is illogical. But it often is not. The National Park Service, for example, is organized by park. Each park (or unit) has a superintendent, and the NPS oversees them, conscious of its special mission to preserve these lands and resources while making them available to Americans to appreciate and enjoy.
Or to take another example, the U.S. Geological Survey is quintessentially a science agency, and is usually run as such. Lumping it in with a bureau like the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which might see its mission as the promotion of offshore drilling, might make less sense.
The logic of the existing Interior structure, which has evolved over a couple of centuries, is at its core political — engineered to make varied political interests happy. Changes, if proposed, could make them unhappy, and bring resistance.
The Bureau of Land Management, for example, has a full array of state offices in places where it manages public lands. Western Sagebrush Rebellion types and party-line GOPers often talk about returning control of public lands to states (by which they mean the Western states, where most of the public lands are).
The current set-up offers some sensitivity and responsiveness to state concerns, which Zinke’s plan could blow up. A bloated regional Interior bureaucracy could end up being much less sensitive to state concerns.
But the most important impact of Zinke’s plan may be to downsize the Interior Department. As the Post noted, the plan could require that “tens of thousands” of Interior employees move their place of residence. Many may quit rather than move. Sixteen percent of Interior’s workforce are already at retirement age, and almost 40 percent will be in five years.
Reshaping of EPA through budgets, attrition
Journalists may do well to remember that, before taking office, the current head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, had filed 14 different lawsuits, each opposing various EPA rules to protect the environment.
And during the 2016 campaign, Trump seemed to promise he would abolish the EPA (he called it the “Department of Environment Protection”), with only “little tidbits left.”
Destruction of EPA, it turned out, was neither politically feasible nor within Trump’s executive powers, because laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act essentially mandated its existence.
So during the transition and early weeks of the administration, talk turned instead to radical downsizing. Myron Ebell, who headed the EPA transition, spoke of cutting the number of employees in half. When the Trump’s official White House budget proposal for the EPA came out in May, it called for an overall cut of 31 percent (may require subscription) (and 40 percent for employees) — the deepest cut (may require subscription) for any major agency.
It may not be the funding cuts
that decimate EPA. Without cuts,
it’s already happening.
But Trump could not amputate EPA’s budget all by himself. It turns out that is the job of Congressional appropriators. Even though both the House and Senate are under GOP control, they did not go along with cuts that drastic.
Still, they made cuts. It’s a complex story, but the House actually passed an Interior-EPA spending bill that contained about $7.5 billion for EPA (which is about $534 million below actual levels in 2017, but $1.9 billion more than Trump asked for). The Senate committee gave EPA $7.9 billion. The eventual result is likely to be in between those two numbers.
In the end, it may not be the funding cuts that decimate EPA. Without cuts, it’s already happening.
Employee demoralization is one cause. A piece by the New York Times and ProPublica on Dec. 22, 2017, said more than 700 people have left (may require subscription) EPA since Trump took office — many because they were “disheartened” by the agency’s direction. Those departures include retirements, buyouts and resignations. The piece said the Pruitt administration was more than a quarter of the way toward its shrinking EPA by 20 percent to levels last seen during the Reagan administration.
The result of all this may be more than “downsizing.” The question journalists will need to ask is whether the agency can do its job of protecting people.
Shutdown clock running
Even before this most recent government shutdown, the problem for most agencies (EPA and Interior among them) is pervasive uncertainty, as chaos in the appropriations process puts them under constant threat.
In the civics textbooks, the “regular” way of funding the government is through 12 appropriations bills, covering groups of similar agencies. In the “good government” scenario, Congress is supposed to pass all of them before the fiscal year starts on October 1.
For a complex array of reasons, that hasn’t happened for many years. Instead, it has become Congress’ habit to miss the Oct. 1 deadline and avert a government shutdown (the consequence of no money) with two legislative gimmicks.
One approach is the “omnibus” appropriation, where all or most of the individual appropriations bills are combined into one mega-package. The idea is that this makes for quicker and easier handling — but it also makes it much harder for journalists and the public to follow any mischief.
The other is the “continuing resolution,” or CR, a supposedly temporary stopgap measure which appropriates money according to “least common denominator” benchmarks. That may mean funding at last year’s levels, or funding at whatever levels House and Senate agree on, or funding at automatic budget-cutting levels set by “sequestration.” Or it may be funding agreed on secretly with a wink and a handshake at the last minute in the dead of night — when there are no reporters around.
Today, typically, omnibus CRs have become the norm. Because they are bred in crisis and almost everything is at stake, they inspire special-interest hostage-taking, horse-trading and brinkmanship. And this sometimes makes them harder, not easier, to pass — especially in a narrowly divided Congress.
In this cycle, so far, Congress has passed four CRs.
Is governing — or not governing — the Trump goal?
The Trump administration’s ambitious agenda of turning around Obama-era environmental and energy policies is outlined elsewhere in SEJournal’s special Journalists’ Guide to Energy and Environment. Many of the administration’s deregulatory and pro-fossil initiatives, for example, will inevitably end up in court, where the outcomes of those cases is often uncertain.
One mantra of the deregulatory movement, as expressed by Pruitt himself, is “regulatory certainty.” But whether or not the Pruitt program achieves its goals, the uncertainty is likely to provide lots of news.
It will be the same with reorganization, budget-cutting or downsizing. The constant chaos and crisis of government shutdown countdowns is certainly the high drama that headline-writers crave.
But is it any way to govern? Journalists may want to ask that question of everyone involved. As the new administration took office a year ago, then-strategist Steve Bannon declared its goal to be “deconstruction of the administrative state” (may require subscription). Will that be the big story on the environment and energy beat in 2018?
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.