House GOP: Destroying "big government" is more important than clean water for Americans

Amid panic over federal overreach, the House voted to restrict critical Clean Water Act protections

Published September 10, 2014 3:01PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Question: Which do you think House Republicans were focusing on Tuesday night when they voted to block the EPA's regulatory powers with regards to clean water? Were they concerned about high-profile debacles this year that cut off access to drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people -- like West Virginia's chemical spill, or this summer's algae bloom in Toledo? Or were they obsessing over perceived "federal overreach" that has no basis in reality?


The House bill, H.R. 5078, overrides a rule proposed in March by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, which sought to clarify two Supreme Court decisions that had made it difficult to determine whether waterways that are dry for part of the year are protected by the Clean Water Act -- confusion that polluters have readily taken advantage of.

The new rule would give the EPA regulatory authority over millions of acres of wetlands along with about 2 million miles of small streams, the latter of which feed into rivers, lakes and reservoirs that provide drinking water for more than 115 million Americans (all of whom, presumably, prefer that water to be pollution-free). It would also protect critical fish and wild habitats.

The EPA emphasized (quite ardently) that it would not be expanding the Clean Water Act, only reasserting its authority over water sources that have historically been protected. "We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities," EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said in March. "Clean water is essential to every single American, from families who rely on safe places to swim and healthy fish to eat, to farmers who need abundant and reliable sources of water to grow their crops, to hunters and fishermen who depend on healthy waters for recreation and their work and to businesses that need a steady supply of water for operations."

Republicans nonetheless managed to twist the action into "one of the biggest land grabs by the federal government ever perpetrated on the American public" from an agency determined to gain "control of all private property."

That hysterical rhetoric carried over to the House, where the vote to pass the bill was driven by Republicans, joined by a few vulnerable Democrats. "I have heard from many of my constituents that this rule would force them to prove that large mud puddles and ditches on their property are not federally regulated waters," said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa.. That claim, according to the EPA, is "not remotely true."

"The only certainty that these regulations provide is the sure knowledge that under them, anyone undertaking any activity so much as a ditch in the United States will have to deal with the bureaucracy known as the EPA," added Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who, per the Hill,  is "one of the most vulnerable incumbents this cycle." According to the EPA, the rule "actually reduces regulation of ditches."

In a statement, the White House indicated President Obama's senior advisers would recommend he veto the bill, because it "would sow more confusion and invite more conflict at a time when our communities and businesses need clarity and certainty around clean water regulation."

By Lindsay Abrams

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Clean Water Act Drinking Water Epa House Republicans Water Pollution Water Safety