Environment, Trump Administration

With public comment period, EPA takes first step in striking the key Waters of the US rule

A wetland, key to filtering pollutants and sponging up floodwaters (Photo: LearnNC.org)

Some wetlands, intermittent streams and other small but important bodies of water could be polluted with impunity if the EPA fully rescinds the Waters of the US rule. The agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers yesterday opened a public comment period on the repeal. Next, the EPA would begin to overhaul the definition of what could be regulated under the federal Clean Water Act.

The EPA enacted WOTUS, as it’s known, in June 2015. After 31 states, including North Carolina, and agricultural interest groups sued, the Sixth Circuit Court issued a stay of the rule, and it has not gone into effect. Gov. Roy Cooper withdrew North Carolina from the lawsuit earlier this year, because President Trump had already signaled his plan to rescind WOTUS.

WOTUS would clarify the waterways to be regulated under the Clean Water Act. This doesn’t sound particularly controversial, except that economic development and agricultural interests oppose it. Farmers could no longer allow runoff from fields and livestock operations into certain waterways where they could before; builders couldn’t dump their fill there.

Opponents of WOTUS claim — erroneously — that all waters, even man-made ditches, would be subject to federal regulations. However, the updated list would include only tributaries, streams, wetlands, etc. that feed already-regulated waters.

The environmental concern is that without WOTUS, drinking water sources, such as the Cape Fear River, could be further threatened by pollution from these unregulated sources. Wetlands, for example, are key not only for wildlife habitat, but they help filter pollution and prevent flooding.

Opponents also assert that WOTUS is an example of federal overreach; they say states should determine what to regulate and to what extent. However, waterways know no political boundaries, and one state’s laxness can conflict with another’s stricter requirements; this is why federal standards are necessary.

Exhibit A has occurred here in North Carolina. In Canton in the western part of the state, Evergreen Packaging has polluted the Pigeon River, which flows into Tennessee. In 2010, North Carolina approved a discharge permit that the EPA said was too lenient. (Clean Water for North Carolina, one of the plantiffs in a lawsuit over the discharge, has a comprehensive and sordid history on its website.

The 30-day comment period opened yesterday and continues through Aug. 28. The Federal Register has the full text of the rule and more background info, along with instructions on how to comment either online, by fax or mail.

NC Budget and Tax Center, Trump Administration

Essential nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is now at risk by proposed amendment

Nonpartisan federal government agencies that often go unnoticed but are vital for good government include the U.S Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The CBO, for example, has provided Congress with budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process for over 40 years.

The concept of good government has always been vital to our democracy. Good government at its core promotes principles such as accountability, openness, integrity, transparency, and reliability. When good government, including agencies such as the CBO and GAO, is supported, the nation and its entire people thrive.

Unfortunately, in Congress, House lawmakers have now introduced an amendment to eliminate CBO’s entire Budget Analysis division (cutting 89 positions) and cut CBO’s budget by $15 million.

Just for reference, CBO currently has a staff of about 235 people. In other words, the proposed amendment would cut CBO’s staff by 38 percent. And from a budget standpoint, the amendment means CBO would lose a third (33 percent) of its funding next year.

A cut of this magnitude would severely damage effective and long-standing good government processes that have helped the U.S. for decades, as professional staff would no longer be able to analyze federal spending or provide formal cost estimates for nearly every bill approved by Congressional committees.

Rep. Mark Meadows

North Carolina’s U.S. House Representative, Mark Meadows (R-District 11), who supports this amendment to cut CBO has stated he would use a rule called the Holman Rule, which allows Congress to cut salaries for individual federal workers, for the first time since 1983. The concern here is that if the House succeeds in doing this to CBO, they could replicate this type of cut at other agencies. [Note: The Holman Rule which was removed in 1983 was reinstated by House Republicans earlier this year.]

All of this is ironic and unfortunate considering that just last Friday every former CBO director signed a letter to congressional leadership that stated: “We write to express our strong objection to recent attacks on the integrity and professionalism of the agency and on the agency’s role in the legislative process.”

No matter which political party one belongs to, it is important to know that these types of devastating budget and staffing cuts to a government agency that is grounded on upholding good government principles are wrong. The CBO has consistently proven that it takes a number of steps to ensure that all of its work is objective, impartial, and nonpartisan—the importance of which was emphasized by CBO’s founding director, Alice Rivlin, in a 1-page memo to CBO staff in 1976 and is posted on CBO’s website.

Luis A. Toledo is a Public Policy Analyst for the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

CBO Memo to Staff (1976) by LT on Scribd

Commentary, Trump Administration

Senate to vote today on mystery health care bill

President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell aren’t giving up on passing damaging legislation to repeal and (maybe) replace the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Despite McConnell delaying the Senate’s August recess to give his caucus more time for deliberations, the GOP has not been able to agree on a health care bill.

Now, McConnell is pushing a last ditch effort to move GOP healthcare plans forward against the wishes of the American public and nearly all provider and patient groups. Senators are expected to vote Tuesday on a “motion to proceed,” which, if passed, would allow the Senate to debate the future of the Affordable Care Act and Medicare and vote on amendments. However, many Senators are concerned because they have been left in the dark about which bill they will actually be voting on. There’s no shortage of bills that could possibly make up the motion to proceed, including: the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act, or the House-passed American Health Care Act.

The fact is, each of the proposed health care plans would do irreversible harm to millions of Americans. What’s more, each proposed bill would wreak havoc on health insurance markets nationwide.

Here’s what we know about the proposals on the table:

  • Over 20 million Americans risk losing health care coverage altogether.
  • Medicaid funding—which covers 1.4 million North Carolina children, as well as people with disabilities and seniors in long-term care—would be slashed by 26 percent over ten years.
  • Protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions would be weakened, if not outright eliminated.
  • Plans may no longer be required to cover essential health benefits, such as hospitalization, maternity care, mental health, and medication.
  • Premiums would increase, especially for people with low-incomes and older adults.
  • Health insurance marketplaces would be destabilized as healthy consumers leave the risk pool.

The mystery bill needs to get past the motion to proceed before it can be discussed and signed into law. If the vote is unsuccessful the bill is considered dead…for now. That doesn’t mean the GOP will give up on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Since the ACA was passed in 2009, the House has held more than 50 votes to repeal former-President Obama’s signature legislation. Prior to May of this year, none of the bills were considered by the Senate. In the last month, however, the Senate had attempted to vote on a health care bill four times. Both the public and legislators are becoming impatient with the incessant focus on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. A recent report from Axios states that many Trump supporters do not view repealing the Affordable Care Act a priority. Another report shows that 71% of the public favor a bipartisan effort to improve-not repeal- the Affordable Care Act.

We will see later today whether voters will get their wish.

Sydney Idzikowski is an MSW intern at the NC Justice Center

Environment, Trump Administration

Former DEQ secretary Donald van der Vaart passed over for No. 2 slot at EPA

Donald van der Vaart, former NCDEQ secretary.

Despite a compelling cover letter to the Trump administration, former DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart will not be EPA deputy administrator, a job for which he was being considered.

Instead, the Washington Post and Axios both reported, Trump intends to nominate Andrew Wheeler, coal industry lobbyist for Murray Energy, and a former aide to climate change denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).

Jeff Holmstead, who served in the EPA under Bush the 43rd, was also in the running.

Wheeler still must be confirmed by the Senate.

It’s not surprising that Trump chose Wheeler. First, Wheeler has deep connections to Inhofe, an admirer and friend of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma. Second, Wheeler’s coal industry bonafides would certainly please Trump, who insists that he will revive the flagging coal industry. That resuscitation is unlikely, considering market forces and clean air regulations are prompting utilities to switch to natural gas and renewables.

Last fall, shortly after Trump was elected. van der Vaart sent a letter to Trump, supporting the president-elect’s desire to gut the EPA. While it’s usually not a good idea to criticize the company you’d like to work for — or advocate for its dismantling — in this case, van der Vaart was sympathizing with Trump’s hostility toward regulations.

But without a federal position in hand and a Democrat prepared to assume the office of governor, last December van der Vaart demoted himself to a non-exempt position within DEQ’s air quality division. That meant he could not be fired as part of the transfer of political transfer of power, essentially guaranteeing job protection for himself.

public health, Trump Administration

The silent killer of the Affordable Care Act

Screen grab from one of the HHS videos used as part of a multi-pronged social media campaign against the ACA.

A new report from the Daily Beast found that the Trump Administration is quietly using taxpayer money to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which remains law despite the Senate’s best efforts.  Tom Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, released a series of 23 testimonials videos featuring individuals describing how they have been burdened by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The videos appeared on YouTube last month and have only accumulated a few hundred views each.

While this may seem like a small spiteful action, the money to produce these videos came from the “consumer information and outreach budget” which is intended to be used for informing the public about the ACA and encouraging enrollment.

In addition to the videos, HHS has pushed a multi-pronged social media campaign against the ACA. Not to mention, one of Trump’s first actions as President was to effectively kill ACA commercials with just 5 days left in Open Enrollment. This resulted in 424,000 less people enrolling in health insurance when compared to enrollments during the same time in the previous year.

This all seems relatively inexpensive, but the Trump Administration requested  $574 million for this specific budget item, though HHS declined to detail how much it has devoted to specific line items.

The true silent killer of the ACA has been reconstruction of the HHS.gov website. The website refuses to refer to the Affordable Care Act by name, replacing it with “the current law.” All info-graphs outlining the benefits of the ACA and key information, such as links to HealthCare.gov and critical enrollment dates, have been removed altogether. The website encourages consumers to use “private sector alternatives” instead of the Health Insurance Marketplaces established under the law.

HHS has also altered the HealthCare.gov website, removing the “Cost and Savings” tab where consumers can find information about where to find prices, if they have to pay penalties, or if they qualify for savings.

Needless to say, the Trump Administration is disregarding its responsibility to administer the Affordable Care Act and is putting significant resources into sabotaging the law through all means necessary. By quietly publishing anti-Affordable Care Act propaganda and removing vital information about the law from government websites, the Trump Administration continues to strip citizens of their rights under the ACA.

Andy Slavitt, former director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, puts it this way: “you’re not hired into the administration to decide whether you agree with the law you’re asked to execute. That’s not your job… Congress appropriates funds for you to carry out laws that they passed, not to spend those funds on activities that counteract those laws.”

Sydney Idzikowski is an MSW inter at the NC Justice Center