Monday Morning Briefing

Monday Morning Briefing

EPA Staffing Plans Take Shape

A series of three recent internal memoranda provide insight into a possible restructuring of EPA, including potential staff reductions in anticipation of budget reductions. Although congressional action is still being formulated, these documents provide a snapshot of the Administration’s movement to implement the President’s proposed budget for FY18.

The first memo, dated March 21, 2017 from EPA Acting Financial Officer David A. Bloom, indicates that the top level Acting Assistant Administrators, Acting Regional Administrators and others are to begin the process of identifying where cuts will be made at the agency in order to comply with the President’s FY18 Budget Submission requesting an annual EPA budget of $5.655 billion, a 31 percent decrease from current levels.

The March 21 memo is fairly comprehensive and provides a template for the agency to aid in defining priority program activities for FY18, identifying programs to be down-sized or eliminated and establishing major milestones. While Congress will ultimately determine how EPA will be funded next year, the document articulates the Trump Administration’s position that programs required by law should be the core focus of the agency and that non-authorized programs, such as Mexico border activities and Alaska native village activities, should be eliminated.

As previously reported, proposed reductions to critical infrastructure protection, drinking water programs and surface water protection could exceed $36.2 million. Cuts for the Office of Water call for defunding critical infrastructure protection programs, including the elimination of the Water Security Division.  Other drinking water programs would also face cutbacks.

The second memorandum, dated April 12 from Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney, is more general and was sent to the heads of all executive departments and agencies.  The document is intended to guide the executive branch in implementation of the federal hiring freeze and other matters.

The third memorandum, dated April 17 from EPA Acting Deputy Administrator Michael Flynn, is intended to implement the directive outlined in the April 12 OMB memo and identifies June 30, 2017 as the date by which the following draft plans are required:  Draft Agency Reform Plan, Draft Agency FY 2018 - 2020 Strategic Plan, Draft Workforce Reduction Plan and a Plan to Maximize Employee Performance.

The end of September is the due date for EPA’s plans to be finalized. The agency also intends to have completed a series of voluntary separations – buyouts and early retirements – by this time. The Chicago Sun-Times recently reported these reductions could include the elimination of Chicago-based Region 5 and the incorporation of the states under its purview into Region 7. While consistent with previous reports that initial budget discussions required a plan for the elimination of two regional offices, the report has been strenuously denied by EPA officials.

The memo also states that EPA will voluntarily continue to operate under a hiring freeze, with the only exceptions coming from Acting Deputy Administrator Flynn. One such exception appears to be the agency’s recent solicitation for special agents whose duties would include “protective services detail” assignments, likely related to Administrator Scott Pruitt’s request for round-the-clock protection – a departure from the security arrangement for his predecessors, including former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

The slow pace of EPA hiring is also manifest in the absence of White House nominees for assistant administrator vacancies, including assistant administrator for Office of Water. Administrator Pruitt has continued to fill positions that do not require Senate confirmation, including chief of staff, associate administrator for public affairs, deputy associate administrator for public engagement, associate and deputy associate administrators for policy and many adviser positions, including senior adviser for regional and state affairs. However, the lack of confirmed politically appointed positions will continue to hamper EPA’s ability to the make high-level decisions necessary to efficiently move policy and regulations in the agency.