WASHINGTON -- America's environmental protections are under a sweeping, concerted assault in Congress that could effectively roll back the federal government's ability to safeguard air and water more than 100 years, Democrats and advocates say.
The headlines have not been dramatic, and the individual attacks on relatively obscure rules seldom generate much attention beyond those who are most intently focused on environmental regulation.
But taken together, the separate moves -- led by House Republicans -- add up to a stunning campaign against governmental regulatory authority that is now surprisingly close to succeeding.
In just the year since the GOP took control of the House, there have been at least 159 votes held against environmental protections -- including 83 targeting the Environmental Protection Agency -- on the House floor alone, according to a list compiled by Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"Republicans have made an assault on all environmental issues," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee. "This is, without doubt, the most anti-environmental Congress in history."
Some of the efforts are broad-based, like the TRAIN Act, which would install overseers for the EPA and require cost considerations to trump health and science concerns for new rules. Another such effort is the REINS Act, which essentially requires Congress to approve all new regulations, essentially granting each chamber the ability to veto the executive branch.
The TRAIN Act has passed the House and both are pending in the Senate. Still another proposed measure that would have all-encompassing reach is the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would make cost the top consideration for all federal regulations.
"It single-handedly amends probably more laws of the United States than any law ever introduced in Congress," said John Walke, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Taken together, the measures would so hamstring regulators that they would effectively return the nation to the 1880s era of the nation's first modern-style regulator, the Interstate Commerce Commission, advocates say.
"This is a departure not just from recent political thinking but literally would be a reversal," said NRDC's David Goldston. "The last time this was a situation that prevailed was the 1890s."
"It shows just a profound disgust and disdain for the regulatory state that is unhinged from any facts or concerns for the benefits from those rules," said Walke.
The ongoing anti-regulation crusade was on display in the House this week -- and will be again next week -- with some smaller bore bills. On Thursday, the House passed a measure that will delay regulations of cement factories that were aimed at implementing court-mandated controls on mercury and other pollutants.
Next week, the House is expected to pass a similar measure to halt rules on boilers and incinerators. While Republicans argue that both measures are merely "time-outs" to allow for deeper study on the impacts on jobs, environmental advocates note that in the case of the boiler bill there is a repeal of restrictions on burning hazardous wastes.
"What the bill does is codify a deregulatory Bush administration rule that was issued in 2001 and overturned in the courts," said Walke. "And it allows all of these nasty hazardous wastes -- oil residue, chemicals and plastics, to be burned in boilers and not subject to any control standard, monitoring or reporting."
In fact, while Republicans have argued that the Obama administration is running wild passing new regulations -- and therefore needs to be checked -- many of the measures coming up in the current Congress are aimed overturning laws first written in 1990. Many of the regulations required were delayed or rewritten by the George W. Bush White House, and then reinstated by courts, often with scathing verdicts.
The boiler rules are a prime example, where the Bush administration argued that "any" didn't mean "any," but "none" or "some."
With the wretched economy, Republicans have made the need to protect jobs their prime justification for delaying environmental and health protections. And they've made it a consistent part of their campaign push, as well.
After Democrats voted Thursday against delaying regulations of cement plants -- the third-largest source of mercury pollution, according to the EPA -- the National Republican Campaign Committee blasted out a release targeting dozens of Democrats for voting "to risk 23,000 jobs with more job-killing red tape from Washington."
"The people of America understand that the EPA is in fact killing jobs," said Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), a Tea Party freshman who sponsored the boiler measure. He added that the bill would make sure "regulations are reasonable and effective" and "make sure that we protect the jobs of the United States of America while we go forward protecting the environment as well."
While Republicans estimate the cement rule could cost 23,000 jobs, EPA scientists say it would prevent 12,500 pollution-related deaths and 7,500 heart attacks. The agency estimates the boiler bill will kill 20,000 people prematurely.
Democrats are pushing back on the GOP by highlighting numbers like this, but they also take issue with the idea that regulations harm the economy.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, released a report at a press event Thursday that she would "explode the myth that a clean environment is antithetical to a strong economy."
The report, citing Commerce Department data, says that in more than 40 years since the creation of the EPA, an estimated 1.7 million jobs and $300 billion in revenues have been generated by industries that support environmental protection. Further, it says, clean air protections will produce an estimated $2 trillion in annual health benefits by 2020, and for every $1 billion invested in infrastructure to reduce water pollution and treat drinking water, up to 26,669 jobs are created.
"The Environmental Protection Agency and the nation's landmark environmental safeguards were created with overwhelming bipartisan consensus in Congress and support from Republican and Democratic presidents," the report argues. "Forty years of achievements are now threatened by partisan attacks."
For the moment, it will be difficult for many of the House's bills to get through the Senate, where Boxer plans to stop them. The White House also has promised vetoes of the measures.
Still, once anti-EPA legislation is written, it can wind up attached must-pass bills, or at least used to try and embarrass Democrats. Thursday night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to attach a measure to a bill on Chinese currency manipulation that ostensibly aimed to stop the EPA from regulating farm dust. But the measure's language doesn't actually mention "farm dust" after its title. Instead, it targets soot regulation. Democrats successfully blocked it.
More troubling to environmental advocates is that they see the attempts to roll back regulations as a sustained effort that will not go away, and likely could pick up steam -- especially if Republicans take back the Senate in 2012.
"I think it certainly will continue through the 2012 election," said Goldston. "I think it's partly an attack on Obama but I think much is a broader part of a Tea Party effort to question the role of government in providing public health protections across the board and funding that."
And he predicted the range of attacks would only get broader.
"This can play out in spending; this can play out in the series of efforts to block any additional protections, not only in the clean air area, but more broadly, there are bills that have been pending in the house and the senate ... that would change the entire structure necessary to create protections," Goldston said.
The anti-EPA campaign has born some fruit already for the GOP, with President Obama delaying planned new regulations of ozone and citing economic reasons.
The political climate has left Democrats wary -- and concerned they could lose some battles -- but they also think the GOP could pay a price.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee, expressed relief that so far lawmakers had successfully blocked EPA-targeted legislation in the Senate. But, he added, environmental protections remain vulnerable.
"It's an area where the current Republican leadership sees an opportunity to express frustration with government and regulation," Cardin said. "It’s consistent with their philosophy -- less government -- and that’s what they’re moving forward. I find it extremely disappointing because environmental issues have always been either nonpartisan or bipartisan. Some of our most amazing advancements on environment happened under Republican leadership. So I think this is very disappointing. But I think I understand their strategy, and I think it will backfire because Americans want clean water and clean air, and they think that clean water and clean air are important for our economy."