By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- A House Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing Thursday was supposed to focus on the EPA's proposed 2014 budget, but Republicans on the committee used the occasion to also make connections between EPA and the current scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service's treatment of conservative groups.
Lost in the shuffle is an EPA proposed budget that trims some $296 million off the agency's 2012 enacted budget. Meanwhile, it increases budget expenditures in areas that involved protecting and improving water quality.
The cuts brought on by sequestration in Washington come at a time when U.S. agriculture awaits EPA's final rulemaking on a proposed Clean Water Act guidance document that is expected to bring an increasing number of water bodies under federal jurisdiction.
Such an expansion of authority has agriculture groups up in arms and has led to legislative efforts to stop EPA from expanding the Clean Water Act.
Throughout various EPA-related hearings this week, though, including those for President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, Republican members of Congress have called on the agency to be more transparent.
The calls for more transparency in federal agencies stem from allegations that the IRS unfairly targeted and audited conservative groups seeking tax exempt status. President Barack Obama announced the resignation of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller Wednesday after the allegations came to light.
Part of Republicans' call for greater transparency has included a push for agencies to be more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Republican committee members Thursday cited a report by the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute released this week that claimed EPA has not been evenhanded in responding to the group's FOIA requests. The report said EPA most often waived fees for a list of green groups while denying a waiver for the CEI on most occasions.
"I'm concerned with the conduct of the executive branch," Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., said in questioning EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe.
"I want to make it abundantly clear that each agency has power over the industries they monitor," Gingrey said. He urged the committee to continue its oversight of EPA on similar matters.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said the Republicans were using "feigned outrage" because "you want to attack the Obama administration."
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, asked Perciasepe to investigate the claims made by the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
"I have not read the report," Perciasepe told the committee. "It is not EPA's policy at all. We do about 500 of these a year. I've asked the inspector general to do a programmatic review of these. Even if fees are not waived, it is frequent that fees are not charged anyway."
One of the largest increases in the EPA's overall $8.2 billion request comes from EPA's office of enforcement and compliance assurance, where the agency has requested an increase above 2012 of $42 million.
In his written testimony before the committee, Perciasepe said the budget proposal would allow EPA to continue to do what it needs to do.
"EPA's requested budget will allow us to continue making progress toward cleaner air, addressing climate change, protecting the nation's waters, supporting sustainable water infrastructure and protecting lands and assuring the safety of chemicals," he said.
"It is the product of long discussions and difficult choices. In the end, we believe this budget will enable us to work toward the agency's goals as effectively and efficiently as possible."
The proposal calls for increases in a number of water-related budget lines including:
-- A $500,000 increase in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative;
-- A $15.7 million increase in the Chesapeake Bay Program;
-- The Surface Water Protection budget would increase by about $9.4 million;
-- Drinking Water Programs would see a boost of about $5.4 million;
-- Wetlands would see a $6.5 million increase; and
-- EPA has asked for a $20.3 million increase in water pollution control grants.
In his opening statement to the committee, Chairman Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said although the EPA budget is a small portion of the overall federal budget, there is concern that the agency is not spending it wisely.
"My concern is not only over the expenditures themselves but also with what the agency intends to do with the money," he said. "Indeed, the Obama administration's EPA has demonstrated an ability to take each tax dollar given to it and return to the American people many more dollars in unnecessary regulatory costs."
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said he's concerned about EPA's growing regulatory footprint.
"With that success -- some might even say in spite of it -- the number and scope of EPA regulations is continuing to grow without precedent," he said.
"The Obama administration is seeking to regulate where they failed to legislate, and they are doing so at a furious pace. According to our staff's review, the agency issued over 600 final rules in 2012, bringing the four-year total to more than 2,000."
Todd Neeley can be reached at email@example.com.
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