Democrats to Target Trump Environmental Rollbacks If They Win House

(Bloomberg) -- Democratic lawmakers are quietly making plans to use hearings and investigations to focus attention on the Trump administration’s environmental agenda if they win control of the House of Representatives.

Because they are less likely to capture the Senate, Democrats would have limited opportunities to enact laws. But they can assert themselves in the House -- and complicate President Donald Trump’s deregulatory efforts -- by using time-honored strategies of burying agencies in oversight requests and hauling federal officials to Capitol Hill for grillings.

“The Democrats will become live players,” said Republican strategist Mike McKenna, who has advised the Trump administration on energy policy. “They won’t be able to set the tone, but they will be able to occasionally play offense, something they haven’t been able to do.”

Hearings and document requests would focus on science, the process agencies have employed to reverse Obama-era policies and allegations of corruption in government, according to House Democratic aides who asked for anonymity discussing plans before Election Day. Among the topics they would explore with their newfound authority to convene hearings: moves to shrink national monuments, expand offshore drilling and ease limits on pollution.

Renewable Energy

Democrats also anticipate eventually advancing legislation to encourage renewable energy, limit oil drilling, bolster a land conservation program and boost the cost of coal mining on federal land.

A top priority will be “holding the Trump administration accountable” for “dangerous policies” that exacerbate climate change, said Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat from New Jersey who could lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We also have serious concerns with how Trump’s EPA has consistently sided with the special interests over people’s health and the environment.”

Aggressive oversight hearings would be a marked change from the current climate on Capitol Hill, where administration actions have gotten scant scrutiny from Republicans reluctant to vigorously question the work of the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department.

“When we have the gavels, it’s a huge difference,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland. “We can have those type of hearings, including oversight on EPA, to hold them accountable for protecting the environment and for being there to deal with environmental issues concerning climate change. It gives us the opportunity to conduct oversight, and it gives us an opportunity to put a spotlight on what America needs to do.”

The House Natural Resources Committee will dig into the Trump administration’s drafted five-year plan for selling oil and gas leases in coastal waters -- and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s surprise promise in January that he would keep new platforms away from Florida. Critics said the pronouncement provides fodder for future lawsuits over offshore drilling and alleged it was a political ploy designed to help Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, in his bid to unseat Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.

Committee Democrats could find common ground collaborating on an energy bill with Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Democrats view the Murkowski measure as a chance to renew and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, an effort previously stymied by Republican opposition in the House.

Scientists’ Stature

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to home in on the EPA, examining decisions that may have diminished the stature of scientists in the agency as well as its work to scale back pollution curbs on oil wells and power plants. The panel also could shine a light on the Trump administration’s efforts to scuttle the Energy Department’s successful loan guarantee program and promote small modular coal plants.

Right now, the leaders of federal agencies effectively “are in a witness protection program -- we don’t see them, we don’t know them, people would have a hard time picking them out of a lineup,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “That won’t be the case after six months of Democratic control.”

Democrats can draw inspiration from 1984, when they used their control of Congress to relentlessly scrutinize how former President Ronald Reagan’s EPA was hiring industry insiders, easing regulations and dramatically scaling back enforcing environmental violations.

Adversarial Hearings

Lawmakers hauled EPA officials to Capitol Hill for adversarial oversight hearings. The House of Representatives even went so far as to charge Reagan’s EPA administrator with contempt after she refused to relinquish subpoenaed documents. And Congress’ investigation of influence peddling at the agency led to an indictment of the EPA official running the Superfund program for cleaning up toxic waste dumps.

Now, Democrats plan to use broad document requests to seek out information, sometimes renewing inquiries originally lodged last year. Those requests have the potential to overwhelm agencies, stealing mind-share from government employees and distracting them from regulatory work.

“All the agencies over there are so short staffed that just dealing with responding to the House will tie them up,” said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protections Program.

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