Leaks on cuts will be punished

Ministers could be hit with further budget cuts if they release early details of their department's

Ministers could be punished for leaking early details of spending cuts with last-minute changes to their budgets, the Financial Times has reported.

With the party conference season about to get underway in earnest, Cameron clearly doesn't want speculation about cuts to distract from the Tories' first conference in government for 13 years, and is planning to use the threat of imposed spending cuts to keep his ministers on message during this period. Control will even extend to the conference itself, the FT reports:

"One senior government official said the Treasury would be vetting all ministerial conference speeches to avoid any hint of new spending commitments."

Provisional deals are already in place for some departments ahead of the announcement of the comprehensive spending review on October 20, but David Cameron is said to be anxious to reveal the spending cuts as a complete package, rather than have different elements leak out at different times, dominating the news cycle and distorting the image he wants to present.

The news that the information will be quite so tightly controlled seems to confirm that Cameron is more than a little concerned about the potential ramifications if the cuts are presented the "wrong" way. Ahead of the AV referendum and the local elections next year, the spending review will be the first major test for the unity of the coalition. David Cameron and George Osborne need to prove to the electorate that their cuts are necessary for recovery, not merely ideological, while Nick Clegg has to keep the left of his party convinced that their interests are served by lending their support. And as my colleague George Eaton pointed out yesterday, opposition to the cuts is gathering momentum on several fronts already, and any leaks of the "outline settlements" currently being negotiated would only fuel this movement further.

Leaking details of departmental proposals to the press used to be a tried and tested way for ministers to try and circumvent the Treasury in securing funding (as immortalised in the first ever episode of The Thick of It). But the FT's "senior government official" warns that this trick won't work this time because Cameron and Osborne are "completely united" on this. So, if any leaks are made over the next few weeks, we'll know it has nothing to do with trying to preserve departmental budgets, and everything to do with personal rebellion against the coalition's leaders.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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