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The Insider

Potential Long-Term Government Shutdown Threatens To Upend EPA Work

EPA is preparing for a potential government shutdown that would begin at midnight on Jan. 19 if last-minute talks between Democrats, Republicans and the White House do not lead to a deal, with agency Administrator Scott Pruitt warning that EPA has “limited resources” to continue operations after funding expires but could be forced to furlough thousands of employees in a prolonged standoff.

As of press time the continuing resolution (CR) funding the federal government is set to expire at the end of Jan. 19. While the House GOP has approved a bill to extend that deadline by a month, it appears to be a non-starter in the Senate thanks to provisions dealing with immigration and children's health insurance. Democrats are unified in opposition to a short-term extension along with a few Republicans who are either policy moderates or budget hard-liners.

Thus, EPA has begun preparations to suspend “non-essential” work at the end of the day, distributing a “contingency plan” to staff that says only 781 personnel, about 5 percent of agency employees, would be “excepted” from furlough, because they serve in roles such as emergency response, national security and other specific activities to ensure “public health and safety and protection of federal property.”

But those furloughs would not begin immediately; Pruitt sent an all-hands email to EPA staff on Jan. 19 saying “At this time EPA has sufficient resources to remain open for a limited amount of time in the event of a government shutdown.” The email says staff “should follow their normal work schedule for the week of January 22, 2018,” and the agency will send further updates if a funding lapse lasts through Jan. 26 -- implying that the “limited resources” would expire on that day.

If EPA is forced to follow its shutdown procedures, a former official says that a short lapse would cause only minimal issues for the agency but the longer the wait for Congress to pass a new funding bill, the more difficulties would arise, ranging from stalled national policies to a lack of federal support for state agencies:

EPA Braces For Major Disruption From Possible Government Shutdown
EPA is bracing for a looming possible federal government shutdown that would furlough the vast majority of agency staff -- and which could have highly disruptive effects on agency operations both within Washington, D.C., and the agency's regional offices -- unless Congress extends government funding that expires at the end of Jan. 19.

The previous shutdown, in October 2013, lasted 16 days and led to major disruptions for a host of EPA's activities; litigation in federal courts was delayed because government attorneys were unable to work on their cases, the agency issued stop work orders related to agency contracts, policy and site-cleanup decisions were delayed, and furloughed agency staff were barred from meeting with stakeholders or other government officials.

A similar halt to the agency's work now would delay a development of a host of actions to either implement newly issued policies or roll back Obama-era rulemakings, such as the designation of areas as in attainment or nonattainment for the 2015 national ambient air quality standard for ozone -- which EPA has pledged to complete by April 30.

It could also do further damage to agency morale, which is already considered to be at a low point as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been seen as at war with his own staff, with union officials openly opposing his policy agenda while Pruitt has mounted attacks on career officials, such as a recent Wall Street Journal interview where he complained of “the lack of focus and lack of energy and lack of commitment to actually get results” at EPA.

But declining morale could aid Pruitt's efforts to cut agency staffing levels, including through voluntary buyouts and early retirement offers seen as more attractive to a disengaged staff. He recently reaffirmed his goal of dropping the agency's overall workforce to under 8,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees, which would be a 47 percent cut from the current 14,162:

Pruitt Seeks To Halve EPA Workforce Despite Obama Administration Warning
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is pushing ahead with plans to reduce EPA's workforce by up to 50 percent at the end of President Donald Trump's first term, despite warnings from the Obama administration that retaining “top talent” at EPA is a “key challenge,” according to a transition briefing paper obtained by Inside EPA.

Under a shutdown, court challenges to EPA's deregulatory actions, such as rule stays and reconsiderations, would also face delays, forcing judges to postpone scheduled hearings and briefing deadlines -- which in turn would push back decisive rulings on whether those actions are lawful.

However, a shutdown in the current climate would be unique as it would come despite the Republican Party's control of the House, Senate and presidency, as according to the Washington Post, the government has never shut down with a single party holding all three.

Given President Donald Trump's contradictory statements on whether he will accept immigration concessions in a compromise bill, it is unclear what bill could win support from both chambers and also avoid a veto.

Since debate over averting a shutdown has largely revolved around how to extend current funding levels rather than negotiating new spending targets, it appears likely that a deal will keep EPA's budget at fiscal year 2017 levels rather than including the cuts that Republicans sought in their FY18 appropriations proposals:

Budget Gridlock Renews Talk Of Mostly Flat EPA FY18 Funding Scenario
The ongoing federal budget stalemate that has left EPA and other agencies without final spending plans more than 100 days into fiscal year 2018 is reviving talk of a seemingly unlikely scenario in which lawmakers approve a year-long continuing resolution (CR) that only slightly tweaks current EPA funding levels, allowing it to avoid the steepest cuts to many programs.

Inside EPA will have ongoing coverage of the budget battle and the effects of any shutdown on environmental policy at both the federal and state levels, as well as the likely fight over FY19 spending when the White House unveils its proposed budget next month.