President Trump’s proposed budget reduction has set off howls of protest from democrats and a wide range of environmentalists. The instantaneous reactions tell their own story and it is not one of thoughtfulness. Smaller budget proposals are a mechanism for organizations—public and private—to reassess, prioritize, and rethink missions.
EPA was created in 1970 and its mission and approach have not changed since then. Over the past 47 years, true to the economic theory of public choice, its scope and bureaucratic control has been an example in mission creep.
No successful organization remains the same today as it was in 1970. Most organizations resist change as do most human beings. In the private sector, competition, reduced demand, a new CEO or potential obsolescence are motivators for change. With the exception of a new President, those motivating forces do not exist in the public sector. So, rather than begin with defense for the status quo, environmentalists and democrats should let the process play out during the budget hearing phase to determine which proposed changes to support or oppose. It is almost a given that the proposed 31% reduction will not get enacted. EPA’s budget is $8.1 billion and the proposed reduction would take it to $5.5 billion the level it was at in 1990.
When EPA was created the nation faced serious environmental problems with air and water quality, waste disposal, and exposure to toxic substances. Since then, tremendous progress has been made as can be seen in EPA’s Report on the Environment. As one example, air quality has shown tremendous improvement since measurements were started in the late 1970s. Ambient levels of pollutants specified in the Clean Air Act have been reduced from 27% in the case of ozone to 89% for lead, reflecting significant reductions in emissions of covered pollutants. Water quality has also improved but unlike air pollution, is very difficult to monitor on a national basis. Hazardous waste and toxic substances are addressed through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Solid progress should be the major reason for rethinking its mission
While a case could be made that in the early days of environmental management, command and control was a means to make sure that all states developed programs to implement environmental improvement and compliance programs, the only justifications for command and control today are that is how it has always been done and environmental advocates don’t want to lose influence with bureaucrats. Each state has set up environmental departments and those departments issue regular reports on compliance and progress.
A strong national commitment to environmental protection and in place compliance mechanisms make it possible to delegate implementation, compliance and enforcement to states with EPA focusing on research, technical assistance, oversight, incentives to continue making progress, and most important identifying the points of diminishing returns. Instead of micromanaging, the agency should focus on results. How a state achieves specific environmental objectives is less important than their timely achievement.
Over the past eight years, EPA was a regulatory machine on steroids. The number of major regulations—those with an impact of $100 million or more increased from 76 during the Bush Administration to 229 during the Obama Administration. The economic impact rose from $38 billion to over $100 billion annually.
Many of the Obama regulations were justified by questionable benefits flowing from equally questionable research and analysis. For example, EPA asserted that further tightening of the ozone standard was justified because it would reduce the incidence of asthma attacks. However, the incidence of asthma attacks has been increasing even as their quality was continually improving. In justifying its Clean Power Plant rule, the agency claimed it would avoid 2700 to 6000 premature deaths. According to CDC, there are 900,000 premature deaths annually. EPA would have us believe that its epidemiological methodologies are sufficiently precise to measure changes between .003 and 1percent. EPA manufactured absurd results through modelling and research designed to support its beliefs; not to illuminate environmental conditions and impacts. That approach needs to change and its research should fill gaps in knowledge while meeting objective scientific standards.
A smaller budget changes incentives and helps reveal real environmental priorities.