04/18/2011 08:36 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2011

The Tea Party Attack on Environmental Protection Will Fail

While many of the Tea Party inspired budget cuts are targeted toward poor and elderly people, a second front in the Republican war on common sense is directed toward environmental protection. The federal budget compromise that kept the government from closing down a few weeks ago may have left EPA's regulatory authority intact, but it cut $1.6 billion from EPA's budget in the current fiscal year.

According to Wall Street Journal reporters Janet Hook, Naftali Bendavid and Stephen Power:

"On Mr. Obama's watch, the EPA's budget has risen sharply, to $10.3 billion in the 2010 fiscal year, after years in which its funding hovered between $7.5 billion and $7.7 billion. Most of the EPA cuts will reduce aid to help states implement health and environmental-protection laws."

The biggest single cut will be about $1 billion in aid to state and local sewage and water treatment plant construction. A $150 million portion of the cuts reduces a program that purchases environmentally sensitive land. Since the Tea Party folks already boil water for their beverage of choice, I guess they figure that a little contaminated water is no big deal. For the rest of us, breathing healthy air and drinking clean water is not a luxury item but a necessity. More to the point, environmental safety and security is a fundamental responsibility of government. A safe environment is no less vital to our well being than a crime-free community. We need a functioning environmental agency just as we need an effective military, police force and fire department. EPA's approach to absorbing the budget cuts keeps their own capacities in place, but reduces the aid they provide to local communities - many struggling to improve their waterways during the current recession.

As we learned recently, the Republican right is not content to limit their attack on environmental security to the federal government. They are launching a series of attacks on state environmental agencies as well. As New York Times reporter Leslie Kaufman observed on April 15:

"In the past month, the nation's focus has been on the budget battle in Washington, where Republicans in Congress aligned with the Tea Party have fought hard for rollbacks to the Environmental Protection Agency, clean air and water regulations, renewable energy and other conservation programs. But similar efforts to make historically large cuts to environmental programs are also in play at the state level as legislatures and governors take aim at conservation and regulations they see as too burdensome to business interests."

This is a case of classic over-reaching by political ideologues who in their zeal to reduce government, fail to understand the deep and profound political support enjoyed by efforts to protect the environment. It's true that sometimes people feel that government's enforcement of environmental rules can be a little too enthusiastic, but no one wants to see the rules eliminated or weakened. It's a lot like the way we feel about state troopers on the highway; we're not crazy to see them, but no one questions the importance of traffic regulation, and no one wants to drive on a road without rules.

Even the conservative secular saint President Ronald Reagan learned the importance of environmental security. He learned that environmental protection was not a liberal or a conservative issue. Reagan eventually got rid of his anti-environmental Interior Secretary James Watt and his ideological partner at EPA, Anne Gorsuch-Buford in 1983. Two years of these Watt and Gorsuch-Buford's destructive environmental management resulted in substantial political damage. The President's team made sure that his 1984 re-election campaign was not burdened by these two zealots. In fact, at EPA, President Reagan brought back Mr. Clean, William Ruckelshaus, EPA's founding Administrator. Ruckelshaus restored professional, non-ideological governance and enforcement to EPA. More recently, Reagan's ideological successor, President George W. Bush was clever enough to hide his anti-environmental policy initiatives with cynical titles such as "clear skies" and "healthy forests." The Tea Partiers don't even take the trouble to disguise their intent.

It is true that during the Great Recession Gallup polls have shown that economic concerns have dominated environmental concerns. Polls also show that support for climate regulation has also declined in recent years. However, public support for clean air, safe drinking water, toxic clean-up and land conservation remains strong and cuts across ideological and demographic distinctions. While polls report partisan differences on the climate change issue, these distinctions disappear when the public is asked about the importance of protecting the air, water and land in their own communities. The average American family devotes a great deal of attention to health and nutrition. This is especially true of parents with young children. Most parents link the quality of their environment to their children's health. A parent who wants to know what type of dye is used in a toy is not about to oppose efforts to keep the air and water free from poison.

The health, safety and security of our families are at the heart of America's bedrock support for a clean environment. The environment is not an ideological issue. There is no conservative way to breathe air or liberal way to drink water. We are all biological creatures dependent on this planet's resources. Attacking environmental protection is not a good way to build a national political movement- unless your goal is to empower your opponents.

I find it difficult to understand the political benefit of attacking health care for old people and protection for our environment. The Tea Party's initial attack on big, impersonal government, taxes and the growing deficit seemed politically irresistible. The attack on grandma's health care and environmental clean-up is a political loser that is out of the mainstream of American politics.