Obama’s budget wish list: Money and manpower for regulations

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President Obama’s 2015 budget request contains hundreds of millions of dollars to further a broad array of regulatory initiatives in the waning years of his administration.

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The proposal would bolster Obama’s climate change initiative with additional funding and manpower, and add to the coffers of Wall Street regulators whose responsibilities have grown in the years since the Great Recession.

The blueprint would direct money toward a renewed gun control push and reforms to the federal criminal justice system. It would devote tens of millions of dollars more to regulations governing the nation’s chemical plants and food safety system, as well as fund a new push to tamp down on compounding pharmacies.

Elements of the budget met with criticism from across the political spectrum. Conservatives panned the proposal as more of the same from an administration that has expanded the federal bureaucracy, while liberals said it falls short of providing necessary funding in critical areas.

Ultimately, however, the proposal’s approval hinges on Congress, where it received a lukewarm reception Tuesday from GOP lawmakers. 

“It is important to remember that it is the Congress, not the White House, that holds the power of the purse and will decide where to cut, where to sustain, and where to invest tax dollars to the most benefit of the American people,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Still, the budget request sheds new light on the White House’s plans for rule-making initiatives amid pressure from Obama to complete planned regulations before the clock runs out on his administration.

Atop the priority list is the president’s campaign against climate change.

Obama’s budget would add both funding and personnel to the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to counter the effects of global warming through new regulations.

Though the EPA’s budget would see a decrease of more than $300 million from 2014 levels, it would be given more than $1 billion for its Climate Change and Air Quality program, a $41 million increase from the current fiscal year.

“EPA will continue to address climate change through careful, cost-effective rulemakings that focus on the largest pollution sources and voluntary programs that encourage businesses to cut carbon pollution,” the proposal stated.

The budget earmarks $199.5 million specifically to tackle climate change and shifts over an additional two dozen employees to bolster the effort.

In remarks Tuesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the added resources are needed to help the agency meet the deadlines set out by Obama for the enactment of new limits on power-plant emissions.

“We’re ensuring that can happen,” McCarthy told reporters.  

Regulations can take years to enact, meaning agencies must move quickly on any new rule-making proposals or risk seeing their window of opportunity slam shut.

The EPA, along with the departments of Labor and Homeland Security, is developing proposed regulations for chemical plants at the direction of an executive order Obama signed last summer after a deadly fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. To aid the effort, the budget request includes $13 million above last year’s spending levels.

The funding would provide for “technical assistance and inspection support,” as well as the creation of a pilot program to help local agencies to plan for, and respond to, chemical accidents.

The Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission would each see significant funding bumps under the proposal, as the Wall Street regulators look to exercise new authorities granted by the Dodd-Frank financial reform act.

For the SEC, the president is requesting a 26 percent hike from current levels, up to $1.7 billion. The CFTC, meanwhile, would see a 30 percent boost to $280 million under the president’s plan.

The latter funding hike is actually smaller than the 50 percent increase Obama sought last year. Dodd-Frank has given the relatively tiny CFTC sweeping oversight over the $400 trillion derivatives market, which has been blamed for fueling the 2008 crisis.

CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton called the agency’s funding request “woefully insufficient,” given the agency’s new responsibilities.

“We have the mandate, but not the money, to do the job,” Chilton said, pointing to low morale and a looming threat of furloughs at the agency. “Our staff is on its knees, some reaching for the exit doors and others already having bailed.”

The president’s plan would spend $1.1 billion on measures meant to curb gun violence, according to the proposal. That includes $13 million for the FBI to maintain improvements made last year to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and $22 million for enforcement at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Tens of millions more dollars would go toward incentives for states to provide criminal history and mental health records to the national database and other anti-gun-violence initiatives.

The Justice Department would devote an additional $173 million in targeted investments for criminal justice reform efforts under the Obama administration’s recent emphasis on treatment instead of prison for many convicts, and programs to ease their transition after they have paid their debts to society.

“Each dollar spent on prevention and re-entry has the potential to save several dollars in incarceration costs,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. 

Obama’s plan also contains additional funding for public protections, including $24 million for food safety, and $25 million to strengthen federal oversight of compounding pharmacies following a deadly 2012 meningitis outbreak linked to drugs from such a facility.

However, the proposal contains a funding decrease for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), prompting concern from some in Congress who question whether the reductions would endanger the public.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said the agency, a branch of the Agriculture Department, is already underfunded. 

“FSIS has serious structural problems, and moving to a system where we have fewer inspectors and more strained resources is not the answer,” DeLauro said.

All told, the budget request contains 136 federal program cuts, consolidations and savings proposals, with a projected savings of just under $17 billion, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Still, in a signal that the proposal faces a difficult road through Congress, Republican lawmakers were balking at some of the proposed funding levels in the president’s request.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), for instance, called the plan an “attempt to double-down on failed policies.”

“Instead of changing course, the president expects the country to support more of the same,” the Minnesota Republican said. “Today’s budget proposal includes hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending to fund new federal programs.

— Peter Schroeder and Tim Devaney contributed.