A risk for Biden’s climate law: agencies exhausted

President Joe Biden’s climate agenda risks being caught between a chronic shortage of federal workers and threats from House Republicans to cut spending.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), in a deal to win his hammer, signed a plan by GOP hardliners to try to get discretionary spending back to fiscal year 2022 levels. This equates to a cut of about $130 billion from current spending levels and aligns with renewed GOP calls to balance the federal budget.

Democrats are well positioned to kill these proposals in the Senate. But conservatives still hope to use the looming deadlines for public funding and the debt ceiling as leverage to get every possible concession.

Such a tightrope strategy threatens to disrupt federal agencies as they rush to do two things at once. The first is to implement Biden’s new climate laws and their rapidly approaching deadlines. The second is to use money from those same laws to rebuild a federal workforce that was understaffed even before the Trump administration hunted the best career workers.

The EPA, for example, has about 18 percent fewer employees from its peak in fiscal year 1999, according to agency data and a spokesperson.

Staffing shortages remain a “horrible problem,” said Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for federal workers.

If Republicans apply 2022 spending levels, then “obviously the [climate] the law cannot be enforced,” she added. “It’s just dollars and cents.”

The Biden administration sees good news: It would be hard for Republicans to claw back money passed under the Cut Inflation Act. The money is already out, from Congress’ perspective, so it’s not subject to annual appropriations.

But Republicans have already signaled they are willing to try. The first bill introduced in the House this year sought to unwind the Inflation Reduction Act’s roughly $80 billion boost to the IRS for tax enforcement.

“Our very first bill, we’ve revoked 87,000 IRS officers,” McCarthy said last week on Fox News’ “Hannity.” This statement is misleading; the IRS plans to use only a fraction of that money for agents.

This bill was dead when it arrived in the Senate. But it demonstrates the tactics Republicans intend to deploy against the Cut Inflation Act, said Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate and energy program.

Rather than voting directly on popular provisions of the law, she said, Republicans are taking the more subtle approach of undermining federal workers.

“It’s a very pernicious way to further implement something that’s already been passed,” Cleetus said.

Democrats are already planning how to defend against Republican efforts to defund the law — without tipping into a government shutdown or other disruptions that would also slow the implementation of climate programs.

Timing is part of the problem. To protect their signature legislation against a future Republican administration, congressional Democrats preloaded the timeline for federal agencies to enact the Cut Inflation Act climate programs. Although the law covers 10 years of spending, much of the $369 billion for climate is expected to be spent before the end of a second Biden term.

But this shorter deadline puts pressure on an already overstretched bureaucracy to work quickly. Federal workers are nearing their limit, advocates say, but hiring more people, especially for skilled positions, can take months.

This adds additional challenges to the next two years of negotiations with Congress. Democrats secured an early victory by passing a government spending package that increased funding for climate programs. But the next funding bill will likely be a tougher fight.

“Through the Cut Inflation Act and recent funding bill, we have empowered the EPA to seriously address climate change and rebuild its workforce in the process” , Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said in a statement to POLITICO’s E&E News.

“Yet our work is not finished. I will continue to do everything I can to ensure that the EPA has the resources and leadership necessary to serve the American people,” said the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Democrats included money for more staff and other administrative costs in the Cut Inflation Act, as well as the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. But federal hiring has been uneven. In some departments, it has barely begun.

The Home Office’s workforce has remained essentially stable since 2021, an administration official says, and the ministry is still deliberating how many staff it needs to hire to implement the cuts law. of inflation.

The Department of Energy is also recruiting staff to implement Biden’s climate law.

It has already added about 900 people, however, with more than 350 of those jobs funded by the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, according to DOE Deputy Press Secretary Chad Smith.

“Previously, the Department operated under strict external hiring restrictions which, coupled with a period of high attrition during the pandemic, resulted in a high vacancy rate across the Department,” he said in an email. mail.

EPA staff grew by about 3% under the Biden administration, EPA spokeswoman Melissa Sullivan said. As of this month, the agency has about 14,840 employees.

During the last fiscal year, the agency was authorized to have a maximum of approximately 15,770 full-time equivalent positions, or FTEs. About 7.5% of that came from the bipartisan infrastructure law, while the rest came from appropriations.

Although it’s a bump, the EPA’s long-term trajectory has been a multi-decade decline in staff.

The EPA’s FTE cap was the highest under the Clinton administration at 18,110, according to agency data. Under the Obama administration, the agency’s workforce soared to about 17,360 FTEs in fiscal year 2011 before dropping in its second term to 15,000. The Trump administration oversaw a further decline to about 14,200.

Biden’s climate law was drafted to give departments hiring flexibility. While the bipartisan Infrastructure Act prescribes the number of FTE positions each program must fund, the Inflation Reduction Act simply earmarked funds for “administrative costs.”

But that could just lead to more contractors rather than a robust federal workforce, said Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator.

Contractors are temporary and often quicker to hire, she said. And while they have some drawbacks, they’re much easier to justify to lawmakers looking at an agency’s budget.

“Agencies are afraid of appropriating,” she said, adding that officials were trying to follow congressional staffing guidelines to the letter. “If they’re hostile to the agency, they can find practical ways to tie the agency to staffing.”

But beyond the short-term challenges of implementing Biden’s climate law, Enck said, the federal workforce needs more people just to do basic government work. The application suffered particularly.

“The American people think there’s an environmental cop on the job,” she said, “and there isn’t.”

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