Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Budget losses show secretaries lack White House sway

Corbin Hiar, Kevin Bogardus and Christa Marshall, E&E News reporter

The leaders of energy and environmental agencies are quickly learning the limits of their power. Despite publicly vowing to fight proposed budget cuts and to defend certain programs, the heads of U.S. EPA and the Interior and Energy departments lost their battles with the White House. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt pushed back against some reductions, only to see the agency's cuts grow even deeper. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke promised to fight —and win — against the White House's initially floated 10 percent slash, but the budget blueprint proposed a 12 percent cut. Energy Secretary Rick Perry testified that he was a "big believer" in research — while the budget says that is private-sector work — and praised a key innovation agency and DOE's Loan Guarantee Program, both of which were zeroed out in the budget outline. The secretaries' apparent lack of influence in the Trump administration is unusual, according to top former agency officials...
Cut 'really embarrassing' for Zinke
Zinke suffered a similar defeat when the budget was released. Earlier this month, Zinke told Interior employees he was "not happy" about the White House's passback, which called for a 10 percent cut. "But we're going to fight about it, and I think I'm going to win at the end of the day," he said. The president's request, however, called for Interior's budget to be slashed by 12 percent, or $1.5 billion (Greenwire, March 16). The White House's brief budget outline may undermine some of Zinke's favorite programs and top priorities. The secretary is a strong supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a popular land buying program that was one of the few Interior areas that the White House targeted for a specific cut. "The Budget reduces land acquisition funding by more than $120 million from the 2017 annualized [continuing resolution] level," the White House said. That means LWCF would be left with just $330 million — far below the $900 million it is authorized to received annually. Zinke has also repeatedly promised to reduce the National Park Service's $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog, promote American Indian sovereignty, and increase employee morale and authority. All of those areas were hit by the budget. While the White House said it would increase investment in deferred maintenance projects, it would do so in part by cutting funding for other NPS maintenance programs. That budget gimmick, former agency officials said, would do little to reduce the overall problem, since cutting routine maintenance would result in new projects being added to the backlog. The president also seemed to call for less money to be spent on Indian Country. Federal dollars would be focused "on core funding and services." But support for "recent demonstration projects" and targeted initiatives would be reduced, the request said. The proposal also may have hurt the morale of Interior employees, who were promised a budget win by the secretary, observers said. "Maybe if he'd held the line at 10 percent, he could have said, 'Hey, you know, I tried,'" said Don Barry, the assistant Interior secretary for fish and wildlife and parks during the Clinton administration. "But the fact that they came in bigger looks really embarrassing. Morale is going to really sag, because you want to feel like you've got somebody who has traction and clout." Interior employees, he predicted, "are going to feel really under siege and going to feel like their core missions, in fact, are not going to be covered." Barry, who is now retired, was sympathetic to Zinke's plight, saying he struggled to oversee the budgets of two of Interior's 10 bureaus. Nevertheless, Barry said, the proposal will make it harder for Zinke to accomplish the goals he has set out for himself: "Budget drives policy." But Interior spokeswoman Megan Bloomgren noted that the budget blueprint isn't the final word from the White House on the department's funding, with details set for release later this spring. The end result "will maintain [the Department of the Interior's] core functions of land access and protection and save taxpayers $1.5 billion during tight fiscal times," she said in a statement.

Notice how the game is set up in DC. A budget cut means "a lack of influence", its a "battle" where the Sec's are expected to "defend" their budget and a cut is a loss on the battlefield.

Ideally, the White House would send over a budget target and the Sec's would then have the flexibility to design a budget to meet the target. However, there is hardly enough time to accomplish that the first time around.

Which is why it is so disheartening to see Zinke playing their game, and in an apparent effort to curry favor with DOI employees, vowing to "fight" and "win". In retrospect, he should realize what a truly stupid statement that was.

Trump is not playing their game and the Cabinet needs to get on board, or jump ship. 

I recollect once having a BLM budget rejected by OMB. Why? Because the cut was deemed too large, and not "politically feasible".  The rules got me too.

Also, look at how many people are sitting as cabinet-level officials in the photo above. By next year it should be less than half as many.


Anonymous said...

reminds me of the book "politics of the budgetary process" where the author cited several strategies like killing popular programs which he called "closing Yellowstone." There is incredible waste in the Federal government, I see it from time-to-time with executives building a personal staff for status compared to their peers. In the end I fear that it will be business as usual.

Frank DuBois said...

"In the end I fear that it will be business as usual."

Could be, but on the budget, Trump has been a pleasant surprise. The general rule has been that he's got 18 months to bring change. After that, the re-election cycle kicks in and status quo rules the day. Or, will Trump break that rule also?