UPDATED, 4:26 p.m., with an audio link to our interview with Simpson.
Rep. Mike Simpson once said the Environmental Protection Agency is the scariest federal bureaucracy of them all — surpassing even the IRS.
Simpson now says, somewhat grudgingly, that the statement was “inappropriate.” But he doesn’t back away from his criticism of the EPA, nor his attempts to slash the agency’s budget.
The EPA has become a red meat talking point for Republicans on the campaign trail. But the criticisms are a bit hazy — and the reality considerably more complex.
When Simpson met with the Statesman editorial board last month, we interviewed him at length about the EPA. I gave his staff the heads up beforehand. Since Simpson is the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the EPA, he’s on the front line of the budget debate. So I wanted Simpson to explain his concerns with EPA.
It’s a sketchy case, I must say.
Simpson hears from business executives who fear the EPA’s ability to levy fines and impose regulations. But he offered no specifics, no referrals. “Most of these companies don’t want to be mentioned, because they’re afraid of the EPA.”
Simpson also criticizes the EPA’s rulemaking, saying one mercury pollution rule will effectively shut down one-sixth of the nation’s 360 coal-fired plants. Are all of the EPA’s new rules excessive? “I’m sure there are rules we should implement,” he said. “I can’t sit here and tell you which ones they are.”
One of Simpson’s biggest fears is an unprovable — the notion that, if President Barack Obama is re-elected, an unfettered EPA would push an even more aggressive agenda on issues such as greenhouse gases. “(That) scares the heck out of me.”
Considering Simpson’s considerable sway over this agency — in June, his appropriations subcommittee pushed for a $1.4 billion cut in EPA’s budget — I wanted to hear more detail. I get that Simpson believes that EPA received excessive budget increases and economic stimulus dollars early in Obama’s term, and that, with Congress looking to cut budgets, the agencies that received big increases are going to absorb deeper cuts.
But does that make for an out-of-control agency?
Simpson’s Democratic opponent, Boise state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, takes a decidedly different view. She too has heard frustrations about the EPA. But she also believes the feds have provided a backstop, as the state has cut it own environmental monitoring budgets. She also maintains that agencies such as the EPA provide good jobs that support small businesses and the economy. “I don’t think we can cut our way out of this budget crisis.”
And despite the soundbite image of EPA as a heavy-handed monolith, the on-the-ground reality isn’t always so simple.
Boise City Hall has worked with the EPA on a novel approach to mitigate phosphorus emissions from its West Boise wastewater plant — allowing the city slightly higher plant emissions in exchange for more aggressive cleanup downstream, near the confluence of the Boise and Snake rivers. A draft permit could be issued shortly. Mayor Dave Bieter credits Simpson with helping on the idea, and EPA officials for coming around. “It’s taken some time, but they’ve been receptive to the idea.”
Even Simpson concedes an irony: a big EPA budget item is noncontroversial, “fairly popular” on Capitol Hill, and woefully inadequate. A state revolving loan fund, accounting for about $2.4 billion of this year’s $8.4 billion agency budget, helps local governments finance water and sewer plants. However, says Simpson, this national backlog totals a staggering $700 billion.
This helps explain why, in our interview, Simpson repeatedly distanced himself from congressional colleagues, and constituents, who want the EPA dismantled.
And Simpson even presents himself as something of a restraining force, saying he has used his chairman’s position to block some amendments to hamstring the EPA. One was an appropriations bill amendment to stop the agency from using unmanned drones; Simpson said he looked into the matter, and determined that the drones were a cheaper way to monitor wildfire, wildlife habitat and look for illegal diversions of water.
So, no, Simpson isn’t an absolutist. “I’m one who actually believes we need an EPA, and we need an active EPA.”
Somehow, and unfortunately, that message gets drowned out in all the anti-EPA fervor.