Congress Is Forcing Team Obama to Withhold Funding From the South

The administration has a plan to give more money to Southern states for clean-air protection, but lawmakers block it every year.

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 12: U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) (R) speaks as Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill January 12, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Republican legislators briefed the media on a recent Congressional delegation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (2010 Getty Images)

Roger Wicker has a bone to pick with the Obama administration.

The Southeast — the region that the Mississippi Republican senator calls home — has 20 percent of the nation's people. But when it comes time for the administration to dole out cash for a clean-air program, the Southeast only gets 12 percent of the program's funding, Wicker said.

And so, when Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy came before Congress to testify Wednesday, Wicker finally got a chance to vent his frustration. "How can EPA continue to develop strict new rules and standards while at the same time limiting access to resources for the states to get their fair share?," Wicker asked.

Grilling administration witnesses is standard fare for opposition party senators, but this time, Wicker's interrogation didn't go as planned.

Asked why the administration is giving EPA the short end of the stick, McCarthy's answer was simple: Because you are making us do it that way.

The region-by-region distribution of the "State and Tribal Assistance Grants" program is set by a decades-old formula, but language in Congressional budgets has blocked the administration from making any changes. EPA couldn't change the grants around even if it wanted to, McCarthy said.

"We have been looking to do that over a period of time. Congress has actually provided language in our budget that did not allow us to do that last year," McCarthy said.

If Congress wants a new distribution, McCarthy said, lawmakers will have to change the way they continually write her agency's budget. "We'll see what happens in fiscal year '15," she said.

The formula was developed under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, but it hasn't been updated to account for population shifts, emission distributions, or other factors. That means that states like Wicker's are given funding based on their population decades ago, while states in the Northeast are collecting more money because they had more serious pollution problems that have since been addressed.

EPA proposed an updated funding approach in 2010 that factored in population changes and gave it more flexibility, but Congress specifically blocked the change in the agency's budget. And they've kept that change from being made every year since.

And so, for Wicker, the issue has come full circle. An aide to the senator said he would work with "his colleagues, and the EPA, to address this funding discrepancy" as they work on the federal budget.

But changing the formula won't be easy — it would require some lawmakers to surrender funding their states currently enjoy.

Bill Becker, president of the National Association for Clean Air Agencies, said that the new formula has proven controversial because it will mean that some states would end up losing money at a time when overall grant funding is dwindling.

"They would be hit twice," said Becker, whose group represents air offices in 45 states. "The converse is those states who would come out as 'winners' under a new formula feel they have been 'losing' over the past 20 years due to an outdated formula. They keep losing until the formula is revised."