When it comes to the size of the federal workforce, most of the rhetoric in Washington revolves around how to cut it. That’s particularly true where Republicans are concerned, and perhaps nowhere truer than with the Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite GOP target. What they almost never mention is that cutting staff means making sacrifices in protecting the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, bathe, swim and fish in, and the many individuals—including infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and those who already suffer from illness—whose health can be severely impaired by environmental pollution.
The recent testimony of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at a hearing of a House Appropriations subcommittee is a case in point. McCarthy informed the panel that EPA’s staffing has now declined to its lowest level since the late 1980s, now “down in the 14,000s.” “I am trying to work our way back up to the 15,000s,” she declared.
In fact, even that would leave staffing well below the agency’s historic high of 18,110 employees in 1999.
The years-long weakening of EPA hasn’t been accompanied by fewer responsibilities, of course. In fact, environmental challenges are as complicated, numerous and serious today as they ever have been. So the cuts have had the predictable — and for some at least, the intended — effect: a significant decline in the quantity and efficacy of the Agency’s work. A telling indicator of this drop is in evidence in EPA’s enforcement activity projections in its Fiscal Year 2014-2018 Strategic Plan.
The Agency’s plan indicates that, through fiscal year 2018, EPA expects to conduct 6,200 fewer facility inspections per year than it carried out annually from 2005 to 2009. It will initiate 1,100 fewer civil enforcement cases, and conclude nearly 1,100 fewer civil actions, than it did during the second half of the 2000s. EPA also expects that its enforcement work from 2014 through 2018 will lead to a reduction of 64 million fewer pounds of water pollution per year than EPA annually reduced through its enforcement efforts from 2005 through 2009.
These decreases in a crucial component of EPA’s work—the direct result of its staffing shortages--are serious business. Moreover, resource shortfalls at EPA have resulted in observable declines in other areas of EPA’s work, such as providing adequate grants and loans to state and local agencies and processing applications for new permits and permit renewals. Budget constraints have also taken a toll on the morale of EPA’s career staff—a key component of Agency success. As Administrator McCarthy perceptibly observed earlier this winter, “not being able to hire in critical places…is the worst thing for morale.”
When one focuses on longer term historical trends, it seems clear that EPA’s recent staff attrition has simply served to exacerbate longstanding Agency budget woes. Despite some unfounded claims to the contrary, the truth is that EPA has never been a well-funded federal agency. It has been plagued by significant resource shortfalls throughout its 44-year history.
As early as 1980, John Quarles, the Agency’s first General Counsel and Deputy Administrator observed, “in the nine years of EPA’s existence, its manpower has roughly doubled while its program responsibilities have been multiplied by a factor of 20.” The budgetary crunch at EPA actually worsened during the 1990s and 2000s. Although the number of Agency employees remained relatively stable during that 20-year period, the economy of the United States—and the number of new sources of environmental pollution—expanded very rapidly. EPA was thus constantly forced to play a game of “catch-up” in important respects.
Moreover, throughout those two decades, mandated cost-of-living wage bumps and a steady budget combined to shrink the funding available for such non-salary-related needs as travel funds for field inspectors, up-to-date computer systems and laboratory equipment, contractor assistance, and other urgent needs.
EPA has now requested funding for 15,373 employees for fiscal year 2016—a modest request by any standard—and congressional appropriators are now considering what the Agency’s next budget appropriation will be. We can only hope Congress will adopt a knowledgeable and reasonable posture with respect to EPA funding levels. If it does not, the health and well being of ordinary Americans could certainly suffer.