In cromnibus, a penny saved, but sensible policies lost

The trillion-dollar spending bill unveiled earlier this month will keep most of the federal government funded through next September — but it contains many provisions driven by shortsighted politics rather than rational decision-making. Informally called the "cromnibus," the bill combines an omnibus appropriations bill for most federal agencies with a continuing resolution (CR) for the Department of Homeland Security through February.

ADVERTISEMENT
At least in theory, the federal budgeting process is about rational investment. Funds are spent on programs and agencies that deliver benefits to the public, justifying their costs. However, aspects of this bill reflect congressional myopia, rather than investment in the future. Some provisions in the bill impede cost-benefit justified regulations and hinder efforts to improve public health and safety.

The bill prioritizes politics over public safety by suspending a truck driver hours regulation that was found to provide $22 million in net benefits, each year, in avoided fatalities and healthcare and traffic-related costs. The Department of Transportation finalized updated, cost-benefit justified hours of service rules in 2011. In total, the updated rules provided $205 million in annual net benefits. One aspect of the rule provided truckers with two consecutive nights of sleep before starting a new workweek. The bill suspends this provision for one year and directs the agency to conduct another study on its impacts on safety, health and carrier operations — likely repeating much of the analysis that led to the rule. Secretary of Transportation Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxDeadly NJ train crash puts spotlight on lack of safety technology Driverless cars are coming, the federal government must act Five takeaways from the new driverless car guidelines MORE sent a letter to Congress urging it not to touch this provision, as evidence shows that it provides safety benefits without harming transportation productivity.

Repeated cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget are also costly to the public. The Office of Management and Budget recently found that the EPA's regulations delivered more net economic benefits to society than those of nearly any other federal agency. The EPA's cost-benefit justified regulations have saved hundreds of thousands of lives since the early 1970s and averted billions in healthcare spending, among other public benefits. Despite this, Congress has been slashing the EPA's budget since 2010. This latest bill would trim the agency's annual budget to $8.1 billion — a $60 million cut from last year, affecting a broad array of programs, including science and technology research and hazardous waste cleanup.

In other provisions, the bill prevents the EPA from even considering whether the costs of potential regulations outweigh the benefits. One example is the prohibition on EPA oversight of lead hunting ammunition. Lead ammunition left in the bodies of hunted animals is known to have an adverse impact on birds and other scavengers, as well as species higher up the food chain, including humans. Viable ammunition alternatives exist, and the EPA banned the use of lead ammunition in water-bird hunting more than 20 years ago, in 1991. Since then, evidence has mounted showing that lead ammunition poses health risks, leading California to ban it last year. Yet, Congress has barred the EPA from even a basic cost-benefit analysis to explore phasing out lead bullets.

Climate change policies are designed to protect the public and the economy in the coming years and decades. Parts of this spending bill, however, will stymie progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and shifting away from fossil fuels. One provision of the bill prevents the EPA from collecting better data on greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems and from requiring ranchers to have permits for livestock methane and carbon dioxide emissions. This is not a minor prohibition: Livestock and manure management account for 25 percent of all manmade methane emissions in the United States. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, up to 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release.

Other provisions turn back the clock on climate progress by renewing the potential for overseas investment in dirty coal power plants by the U.S. Export-Import Bank and continuing the trend of increasing federal spending on fossil-fuel research and development. Spending on oil and gas research will rise to $571 million — 20 percent more than the administration requested — while alternative energy research receives 16 percent less than requested. At the same time, the bill denies funding for high-speed rail and blocks allocation of funds to fulfill President Obama's $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund, which may be critical to an international climate change treaty.

While the spending bill avoids a short-term government shutdown, it misses the mark on some long-term investments in a healthy, sustainable future.

Hein is the policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity, focusing on climate change, energy and transportation issues.