The regularity with which the national debt limit is extended is nothing new. Ever since 1917, the “ceiling” of the debt limit is periodically extended by Congress to determine how much money the U.S. government can borrow to give the Department of the Treasury flexibility in issuing debt.
While there are legitimate and appropriate questions about how much money our government should borrow, determining the debt ceiling shouldn’t be controversial or raised to the level of a national crisis in a bicameral system like Congress in which both parties are supposed to govern in good faith. That is, “supposed to.”
Unfortunately, when you’re as out of ideas as today’s Republican Party, which has lost its patience for actual governance and seems to rely more on culture war histrionics, prejudice and sedition to remain relevant to voters feeding on misinformation, unfounded conspiracies and unscrupulous media, political hostage-taking becomes an attractive option. But playing brinkmanship with the nation’s economic standing and people’s money is no laughing matter.
In pulling their disruptor option, Republicans demonstrate how little interest they have in workable policy. But they also know there are a fair number of Democrats willing to play ball to help negotiate away long-term and otherwise effective regulatory policies in the interests of resolving said “crisis,” no matter how manufactured it may be, to the benefit of their donors. As we’ve seen in the post-Citizens United landscape, Democrats are more than willing to throw the environment under the bus, if not out the window, when the rubber meets the road.
In an era in which unlimited funds regularly swell political action committees in support of candidates, it may come as no surprise that entities whose currency is clean air, clean water or biodiverse habitats and open space don’t stand a chance against the influence of hundreds of millions of dollars. And since Democrats can now pull reliable majorities in most cities and urban centers, why bother dwelling on the environment when developers, utilities and other entities can simply greenwash issues and provide more money for political coffers, PACs and slush funds.
Sadly, it appears President Biden and congressional Democrats are willing to weaken or gut several long-standing environmental pillars in order to make this current debt ceiling crisis go away. Using buzzwords like “reform” or “streamline,” several Democratic congressional representatives, including one from San Diego County, have long been angling to marginalize the landmark National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Don’t be fooled.
Signed into law months after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and a fire that burned for several days along the then-notoriously polluted Cuyahoga River, NEPA was established in part to ensure transparency and public participation in federal environmental decisions, and to ensure scientific evidence is the paramount consideration for project approvals.
The ability for the public to access federal project information, whether for a dam or a clearcut, in order to be engaged in the process and comment on it remains critical. Weakening the level playing field and due process NEPA provides the public and science in the name of short-term building expediency would be a gross undoing of our nation’s environmental protection apparatus. That some are using the argument that we need to weaken environmental rules in order to pursue seemingly green, but rather greenwashed, projects in the service of developers or utilities is monstrous.
Similarly, portions of the Endangered Species Act, signed into law in 1973, are also on the debt ceiling chopping block. This is already dangerous given a bill introduced by Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, that would exempt the U.S. Forest Service from its requirement to reassess and strengthen land-management plans after a threatened or endangered species is listed under the act, or critical habitat is designated in a National Forest. In the midst of an extinction crisis the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in centuries, driven in no small part by the impact of humans, deforestation, overdevelopment and our resulting warming climate, it is an abomination to weaken the rules by which the very survival of human-impacted endangered or threatened species may hinge.
These rules and regulations didn’t fall out of the clear blue sky — the public demanded them for good reason, and they were signed into law for good reason. We need them retained in name and full capability.
Now, let’s be clear. I support President Biden and I’m glad he’s in the White House. But it’s clear the president is getting schizophrenic advice on the environment. As much as we applaud newly-established National Monuments under Biden’s watch and the welcome inventory of old-growth and mature forests on federal lands — a fine companion to the 2001 Roadless Rule — the administration has recently green-lighted the notorious Conoco-Phillips Willow oil exploration project on Alaska’s North Slope, and the construction of a natural gas pipeline across hundreds of miles of wilderness in the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia.
The president and congressional Democrats would do well not to take the bait dangled by Republicans, and some within their own party, to resolve House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s crisis of convenience by desecrating the mechanics of ensuring our nation’s environmental legacy to satisfy the whims of wealthy polluters and resource extractors. State leaders similarly seeking to radically curtail the California Environmental Quality Act by budget processes should also take note.
Tommy Hough is the co-founder of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action and served as its first president. He ran for San Diego City Council in 2022.