4 reasons why the energy and water bill may be doomed

Source: George Cahlink, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 1, 2017


The House last week passed a $37.6 billion fiscal 2018 energy and water spending bill as part its four-bill minibus appropriations package.

But the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers measure is not yet law, and several differences between the bill and Senate and White House proposals still could derail it.

Here are the key differences lawmakers and the administration will need to work out to get fresh energy and water spending signed into law before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

WOTUS, other riders

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), the ranking member on the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said last week on the floor that several “controversial riders” threaten the chance for the bill’s enactment.

During floor debate, Kaptur, other Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups made the most noise about a rider that would exempt the Trump administration’s repeal of the Clean Water Rule, also known as the Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS, rule, from the Administrative Procedure Act.

Critics warn exempting the repeal from the APA could remove the requirement that it undergo certain public scrutiny as well as make it easier for the new administration to ignore the Obama team’s justifications for the rule. And, it could jettison the rule’s cost-benefit analysis and a review from U.S. EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

Democrats failed to get the rider stripped on the House floor, but they are likely betting the provision won’t survive in negotiations with the Senate, where Democrats have the votes to filibuster any spending bill. The energy-water funding bill approved by Senate appropriators last week does not contain the language on WOTUS.

Other House riders that could spark a backlash from Democrats if included in a final deal include one barring development of a national oceans policy; another banning the federal government from closing the Yucca Mountain, Nev., waste depository; and a provision delaying efficiency standards for lightbulbs.

Clean energy, science research cuts

As with most spending bill negotiations, lawmakers will have to iron out partisan differences over proposed cuts.

House Democrats sharply criticized the bill for largely siding with the White House in making deep cuts to Energy Department clean energy programs and funds for high-risk research projects.

Those Democrats want to reverse a steep $1 billion cut to DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, as well as a proposal to eliminate the $300 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which funds “high-risk” projects.

Some conservatives and the Trump administration have questioned the return on investment from the clean energy programs and suggested the research work might be better done by the private sector.

But Senate appropriators from both parties signaled they are willing to buck the White House on those cuts. Their spending proposal would set ARPA-E funding at a record $330 million and provide EERE $1.9 billion, which is $700 million above the president’s request.

If the Senate funding levels win out in negotiations with the House, it’s not clear if President Trump would sign the spending bill.

Advocates are praising a successful bipartisan amendment to the House bill to provide millions of dollars for energy storage research, evidence of the appetite for such spending.

Resolving spending restraints

Congress also will need to sort out its broader budget caps for fiscal 2018 before it can finalize energy and water spending.

Both parties have signaled they want to raise the discretionary funding caps set by the 2015 Budget Control Act at $1.65 trillion for fiscal 2018. If not changed, agencies would see sequester reductions totaling about $500 billion spread across all federal agencies next year.

Most Democrats and Republicans believe the caps should be lifted, but there’s no consensus yet on what level they should be raised to and where the money should go.

Republicans want those dollars to go toward security spending like the military and a border wall, but Democrats have said any increase should be split equally between security and domestic accounts.

Bicameral negotiations have yet to begin over where the caps will be set, and without a deal it is unlikely any new spending bills would be sent to the president. Without new funding, federal agencies would be forced to shut down come Oct. 1.

Instead of forcing a closure, though, Congress would likely rely on stopgap funding bills to keep government running at current spending levels as it works at a final deal. It’s a route repeatedly taken for the past several decades.

White House wild card

The biggest factor in the fiscal 2018 spending bill outlook may be Trump.

The president sent chills through federal agencies earlier this year when he did not rule out a “good government shutdown” to force Congress to enact his priorities.

Administration officials and GOP lawmakers have since played down that threat as mainly a negotiating tactic. They say Trump does not like to take any options off the table when making deals to increase his leverage, even those that might seem too aggressive.

Still, neither party knows quite what to expect from a president who seems to thrive in part on chaos and making unpredictable moves.

The White House so far has said it would back the House version of the energy-water spending bill, which mostly aligns with its request. It has yet to weigh in on the Senate plan.

Adding to the uncertainty is the need to raise the nation’s debt ceiling by mid-October. Many lawmakers believe a debt ceiling increase could be combined with a broader deal to raise caps and move most, if not all 12, fiscal 2018 spending bills in a single package.