A Florida congressman has filed legislation to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, underscoring Republican antipathy toward an agency that has out-sized importance in the Sunshine State in general and in South Florida in particular.
The bill by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, is not likely to become law. Even if it passes the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats in the U.S. Senate would block it from passing that chamber. And President Donald Trump, no fan of the EPA, has nonetheless nominated someone to lead it – not the move of a president looking to eliminate the agency.
Still, Gaetz’ effort is a noteworthy departure from the norm in Florida, where reverence for the environment – at least professed reverence – is something of a bipartisan badge.
Gaetz’ office said the congressman is not available to discuss the legislation, and his staff would not answer questions about it, either.
Campaign finance reports indicate that Gaetz’ 2016 congressional bid was heavily financed by development interests, U.S. Sugar and the oil and gas industry.
Elimination of the EPA or even an evisceration of its enforcement power — a much stronger likelihood — would be a boon to those looking to drain wetlands for development or release pollutants into the air or water.
Gaetz’ EPA legislation isn’t his first taste of headline-making.
He drew strong reactions this past year, when, in the aftermath of the death of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, he criticized those who kneeled in protest during the national anthem. Gaetz noted that Fernandez, who fled Cuba, “risked his life” for the privilege of standing during the anthem, an assertion some saw as a political exploitation of the pitcher’s death.
Gaetz irked some in 2013 when he said wouldn’t change “one damn comma” in the controversial “stand your ground” legislation some viewed as a threat to the prosecution of those charged with gun crimes.
Gaetz was arrested in 2008 after an Okaloosa County deputy pulled him over for speeding, according to reporting by The Tampa Bay Times. The deputy noted in a police report that Gaetz fumbled for his license and registration, staggered and swayed when he got out of his car and that his eyes were watery and bloodshot.
But Gaetz, the son of the then-president of the Florida Senate, was not prosecuted for DUI, the newspaper reported. The arresting deputy later resigned after being accused of using excessive force in another case.
Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida, said Gaetz’s EPA legislation does match conservative consternation with the agency. She said the wholesale elimination of the agency, however, might not be Gaetz’ goal.
“You know, in budgeting, you ask for twice as much and hope in compromise you get what you need,” MacManus said. “There could be some of that here.”
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, does not share Gaetz’ view that the EPA should be eliminated.
“While there’s no doubt that far too often over the last eight years the EPA has been used as a tool to advance a one-sided political agenda,” Mast said. “Indiscriminately eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency will hurt communities like ours who rely on clean air and water to boost tourism, help small businesses and improve the quality of life for local families.”
Another Palm Beach County congressional delegation member, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, said: “The EPA keeps our air breathable, our water drinkable, and our land habitable. Gutting the EPA is a giveaway to corporations looking to dump their toxic waste into our lakes and rivers and clog our air with pollution.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio would not say if he backs Gaetz’ bill, but he echoed Republican frustration with the agency.
“I believe the government has a vital role to play in making sure our air is clean and our water is safe,” the senator said. “However, the EPA overreached on many of the regulations it issued over the last eight years. I support rolling back regulations that hurt our economy and do nothing to help our environment.”
The EPA got its start with an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970.
The agency’s portfolio is vast. It monitors and enforces adherence to clean water and air laws. It designates polluted areas a “superfund sites” that must be restored to safe conditions before they can be used.
The EPA determines if permits are issued to drain wetlands. It monitors greenhouse gas emissions, which are believe to be responsible for sea-level rise, a significant threat to Florida and its tourist-drawing, coastal beach communities.
For the past 20 years, the EPA has been assessing the health of the Everglades, which is critical to the state’s water supply as well as to its plant and animal diversity. The Everglades is also a tourist draw; more than a million people a year visit Everglades National Park, according to the National Park Foundation.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, said people take clean air and water for granted. She said Gaetz’ legislation is a “very, very, very bad idea.”
“I don’t know the man,” she said of Gaetz, “but I would totally disagree with where he’s coming from on this.”
The EPA’s sweeping mandate has made it a political target for those who say they believe it constrains business and economic growth. As a presidential candidate, Trump blasted the agency’s work.
“What they do is a disgrace,” Trump said during a 2015 interview with Fox News. “Every week they come out with new regulations. They’re making it impossible.”
Trump has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA. Pruitt, according to The Huffington Post, has sued the EPA 14 times. He killed the environmental protection unit of his office, and environmentalists fear he has the same plan for EPA.
Pruitt is described on his attorney general website as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
Melinda Pierce, the legislative director of the Sierra Club, said environmentalists are far more worried about the possible confirmation of Pruitt than about Gaetz’ legislation, which she said “is not going anywhere in the Congress.”
“The more pernicious threat we face is the confirmation of someone like Scott Pruitt, who has been a foe of the organization he’s been nominated to lead,” she said.