The House on Thursday afternoon approved legislation Republicans said was aimed at ensuring that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot regulate so-called "farm dust."
The Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act, H.R. 1633, which would prevent the EPA from issuing any new rule over the next year that regulates coarse particulate matter, or "nuisance dust," passed in a 268-150 vote.
Like other environmental bills the GOP has brought forward this year, the bill enjoyed some support from Democrats: 33 voted along with Republicans in favor of the bill.
The bill is a reaction to the possibility that the EPA might issue a new rule that affects farmers. Republicans have cited that possibility all year as an example of overreach by the EPA.
A statement from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson earlier this year that the agency now has no plans to issue any such rule did not deter Republicans from pushing ahead with the bill, which they said would create certainty that no rule would come out.
"Despite Administrator Jackson's statement, there is nothing currently on the books preventing the EPA from adopting a stricter regulation," Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) said. "This legislation provides iron-clad certainty to farmers, ranchers, small business owners that farm dust would stay off the EPA's to-do list for at least another year."
Democrats said the bill is unnecessary, given Jackson's assurance that there is no need to fear a rule.
"Once again, House Republicans are wasting the Congress's time on a bill that has nothing to do with creating jobs or dealing with the pressing issues that confront us before the end of the year," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. "The Farm Dust Regulation Prevention Act is based on the same failed claim that deregulation will lead to job growth."
"This session of Congress has felt to many of us like a trip into Alice's Wonderland," Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said during closing debate. "While our nation struggles with a devastating economy, we do nothing about jobs or getting Americans back to work. Instead, we repeatedly fall down the rabbit hole of extreme legislation, and now with this [bill] … it seems that we're even having tea with the Cheshire cat.
"To paraphrase our friend the Cheshire Cat, 'We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad. You must be mad, or you wouldn't have come here.' … [The bill] is a mad solution to an imaginary problem," she added.
Democrats also charged that the bill could be used to help industries other than farming avoid federal pollution regulations.
"It is not really about farms at all," House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said. "It's real effect is to exempt industrial mining operations and other large industries from regulation under the Clean Air Act, and it threatens to overturn the particulate pollution standards that protect families in both rural and urban communities."
Waxman said the bill would ban regulations related to nuisance dust, but defines "nuisance dust" in a way that could exempt not just farmers, but coal mining operations and cement plants from new particulate-matter rules. He also said Republicans rejected amendments aimed at ensuring that the bill only blocks potential new rules on dust related to farms.
Under the bill, nuisance dust is defined as particulate matter that is "generated primarily from natural sources, unpaved roads, agricultural activities, earth moving, or other activities typically conducted in rural areas."
Republicans rejected this argument by pointing out that mining operations are still subject to several environmental laws, and that dozens of agricultural organizations support the bill.
"Listen to the American Farm Bureau Federation and all its state affiliates," Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said. "Listen to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and over 185 other organizations who collectively represent a significant portion of the rural economy. These organizations believe that this bill is necessary, and so do I."
House passage sends the bill to a Senate that is unlikely to take it up at all. The Obama administration has already said it would veto the bill.