The Gridlock Game

"Under democracy, one party always devotes its energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule -- and both commonly succeed and are right." H.L. Mencken: Minority Report (1956)

Partisan politics here in the United States all too often gets in the way of promoting a government that functions effectively and truly serves our nation's citizens. A prime example is the annual slugfest over the budgets for the various U.S. governmental agencies.

In the beginning of this year, months of heated debate and umpteen continuing resolutions meant that the federal agencies were still operating during January and February, 2003, under the funding levels of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2002 budget. Finally, on February 13, 2003, the U.S. Senate broke the political gridlock and approved the FY 2003 omnibus spending bill, which contains funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and several other agencies. Then on February 20, President Bush approved the appropriations bill that includes $8.1 billion for EPA. The FY 2003 budget is slightly more than the $7.9 billion received by EPA in FY 2002.

Now attention is shifting to the 2004 budget. The Bush administration released its FY 2004 budget request on February 3, 2003, in which it requested that funding be set at $7.63 billion -- less than the Bush administration's prior requests for EPA's FY 2003 and FY 2002 budgets. The biggest cut would be the clean water state revolving fund (SRF), which would receive under the FY 2004 budget $850 million, down about $360 million from the Bush administration request for the previous year and about $500 million less than the amount that Congress has appropriated in each of the past several years. Under the proposal, funding for a different program called the drinking water SRF would remain at $850 million.

Other proposals under the FY 2004 budget includes $7.7 million to implement the Clear Skies Initiative, a plan to curb emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury from power plants by 70 percent, which EPA officials describe as their top priority. Under the proposed budget, the brownfields program would increase about $10 million from the amount requested in FY 2003 to a total of $210 million. EPA would also receive an additional $150 million for Superfund remedial actions. 

Already several environmental groups have strongly criticized the Bush administration's proposed FY 2004 budget for what they view as significant cuts in certain programs. The Natural Resource Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth announced in February that under the proposed budget overall discretionary spending on natural resources and environmental programs would drop by $1.6 billion from levels enacted in FY 2002. Moreover, the environmental groups said that although EPA is seeking an additional $21 million to pay for 100 additional enforcement personnel in the FY 2004 request, the figure still represents a cut from enforcement funding levels prior to the Bush administration taking office.

Some predict that this year with Republicans in control of the executive branch, the Senate and the House of Representatives, the passage of new legislation, such as the FY 2004 budget appropriations bill, should go more smoothly than in 2002. On March 19, 2003, however, after much contentious debate the Senate voted 52-48 in favor of a Democratic-sponsored amendment to strike language from the Senate Budget Resolution that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Of course, political bickering is one of the prices we pay to live in a democratic society where individuals have a Constitutionally protected right to express their own views. Winston Churchill once stated that "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Even though our democracy is structured to promote the robust discussion of issues , efforts still need to be made to move beyond divisive wrangling and to focus on workable solutions. We Americans want to see our elected officials in Washington working together creatively to pass new laws that are good for both the environment and the U.S. economy.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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