In a historic vote late Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to yank the Environmental Protection Agency's authority over the state's out of the Clean Water Act. The vote was 239-184, mostly along party lines, although 16 Democrats crossed party lines to support the bill while 13 Republicans voted against it.
The bill, co-sponsored by Florida's own U.S. Rep. John Mica, is part of a broader Republican assault on environmental regulations and the EPA -- aka the "Job-Killer."
The bill contains a lot of "thou-shalt-nots" for the EPA. It says the EPA shalt not issue new water-quality standards for a pollutant if the EPA has already approved a state water-quality standard for the pollutant, unless the state agrees with the EPA -- a swipe at the EPA's attempt to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Florida, even though it is only doing so as a result of settling a lawsuit with environmental groups in 2009.
The bill says the EPA shalt not supersede a state's determination that a discharge into the environment will comply with applicable environmental standards. If the EPA has approved a state program under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, the EPA shalt not withdraw this approval simply because it and the state disagree. And -- in a blow clearly aimed at its wetlands authority -- the bill says the EPA cannot block states from listing an wetland area as a disposal site for dredged spoil.
Mica and the bill's other supporters all made speeches talking about how the EPA had overreached its authority under the Clean Water Act and how its attempts to clean up pollution were hurting the economy. Opponents sputtered, incredulous. At one point Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., blurted out, "This bill is ABSURD."
The bill -- H 2018 -- will probably flop around like a boated bass and die, because President Obama "strongly opposes" it and would likely veto it in the unlikely event it were to pass the Senate. Nevertheless, it was an illuminating snapshot of how little we've progressed in the decades since the original Clean Water Act passed in 1972. The arguments then are the arguments we heard tonight.
As we note in "Paving Paradise," the bill was a bipartisan effort (just like this repeal bill), with the lead sponsors Democratic Sen. Ed Muskie and Republican Sen. Howard Baker. After they got it passed, then-President Richard Nixon vetoed it.
"Nixon said he didn’t object to cleaning up pollution, but rather to the cost—an estimated $24 billion to help cities and counties across the nation stop dumping raw sewage into rivers, bays, and streams," we wrote. "That was $18 billion more than he wanted to spend.
The bill’s sponsors set out to override the veto -- something that had not yet been successfully done during Nixon's first term. In debate, they contrasted Nixon’s concern for mere dollars with the public's growing worry about the human cost of coping with a polluted world.
“Can we afford clean water?” Muskie asked his colleagues. “Can we afford rivers and lakes and streams and oceans which continue to make life possible on this planet? Can we afford life itself?”
And Baker asked, “If we cannot swim in our lakes and rivers, if we cannot breathe the air God has given us, what other comforts can life offer us?”
They won, overwhelmingly. But clearly the controversy continues.