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Power of the purse: Rep. Betty McCollum on using the appropriations process to check the Trump administration

McCollum is chair of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds everything from the EPA to Indian Affairs to the National Endowment for Arts.

Rep. Betty McCollum
Last year, with Democrats in the majority, Rep. Betty McCollum was poised to take a leading role in the appropriations process as chair of the appropriations subcommittee.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum really enjoys the appropriations process.

The Fourth District representative leads the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee as chairwoman. That subcommittee sets the funding allocations for the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of the Interior.

Last year, with Democrats in the majority, McCollum was poised to take a leading role in the appropriations process as chair of the appropriations subcommittee.

In what is in many ways the culmination of her first year of work as chair, this year’s Interior-Environment appropriations bill passed the House last Tuesday as part of a package of five funding bills for the 2020 fiscal year.

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McCollum’s office said that the bill is important for a number of reasons: It funds the EPA and the Department of the Interior, but also programs for Indian Country and the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.

I sat down with the St. Paul representative to chat about the appropriations process, as well as her thoughts on climate change and the Twin Metals mining project.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

MinnPost: The president proposed a budget with significantly lower amounts of funding for some programs. How did you draft the bill, knowing his administration wanted to make major cuts? 

Rep. Betty McCollum: In the bigger sense, the president proposes a budget and we kind of knew what this budget was gonna look like. So the president has been very much wanting to not fund anything that the EPA does, not wanting to fund [dealing with] climate change. But when you don’t fund the work of the Environmental Protection Agency, you’re not living up to the responsibility of that agency to protect water, land and air. And then, even in the Native American Council, which we have … I mean, this is a bill on which we fund hospitals and clinics. We fund schools, you know. Grade schools. And colleges. Build roads. Build sewer and water treatment plants.

So there’s a lot of infrastructure in this bill that lots of times people don’t recognize. But when the president zeroes out school construction, you know what he’s saying to America’s children [is] the safety of your schools doesn’t matter to me.

MP: How did other committee members contribute to the bill? 

BM: We also asked members to submit requests. Then we had almost 6,500, we rounded, requests submitted to us. And so people from the Midwest wanted the Great Lakes funded. People from Chesapeake Bay wanted Chesapeake Bay water quality funded. … And you know, the regional [priorities] all came in with strong bipartisan support from across the aisle. Big requests for funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Big requests for making sure that we protected our drinking water.

So there was a lot of commonality, for national parks and, that came in from our folks that said, “Hey, this is what I’m hearing from my constituents. This is what they expect.” A lot of broad bipartisan support on that. And then we had a public witness hearing from the tribes and we had them set their priorities, their top lines of what they wanted to have happen.

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We had public witness day. That had that been discontinued under the Republicans. [It’s] where we heard from a whole gamut of things from historic preservation to land and water conservation folks, endangered species. The whole gamut came in and spoke with us. So that kind of gave us some direction at the sense of not only where members request, but then how do they line up with what we’ve heard from other people? And so that’s how you start building your bill. And that is: listening.

MP: The bill in part deals with some oversight of Trump administration’s push to reorganize some agencies. Why? 

BM: The most recent example that the Trump administration went back on was there’s a program at Forest Service within Job Corps where a lot of firefighters are trained and people who do outdoor skills work and carpentry work. It’s an amazing program. And the Trump administration decided to disband it. Not to fund it anymore.

But they did it by reorganizing it and putting it over to the Department of Labor. But by doing that, they effectively started closing down all the Forest Service accounts that run the program. So [Secretary of Agriculture Sonny] Perdue walked that back and Congress was heard. It was very bipartisan, strong, almost nonpartisan support to keep that program moving forward. So we’ll make them think twice. We’re watching what they’re doing with the taxpayers dollars and the delivery of services to the taxpayers.

MP: How did Republicans, now in the minority, deal with your leadership on the bill? 

BM: I think that they were very disappointed that their traditional riders weren’t in. One [for example] … so there’s lead in ammunition and there’s lead use in some sinkers. And when a deer gets shot or something gets shot with lead, the scavengers including eagles consume the lead, it’s dangerous for them. It’s a preferred [type] of a bullet for some individuals, but it’s not the only [type of bullet]. There’s other alternatives out there.

When it’s used in our waterways in Minnesota, one piece of lead can kill a trumpeter swan. And we’ve been working really hard to get our trumpeter swan population back up. And there’s no reason why lead has to be used in that way for ammunition. Now there’s other ammunition that will protect the environment, protect the scavengers, and protect, you know, even a trumpeter swan, which isn’t a scavenger when it’s going along eating in one of our ponds or streams.

So I thought that it’s important that we didn’t protect the lead ammunition and sinker industry in this bill. If they really want to do that, they can go do it in the Authorizing Bill, but it actually costs us money when we have species that all of a sudden go on to the endangered or the watch list. And we’re spending money to try to keep those iconic species healthy.

MP: Is the role of the committee, beyond appropriations, oversight?

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BM: Definitely. Because when we ask for money to be spent in a certain way, the administration needs to follow through on it. They have a lot of latitude on how money gets spent as it is. The fact that we don’t do congressional earmarks, either for our district or for our region, has given the administration … a lot more flexibility with the dollars that they do have.

So it’s our oversight and it becomes more important to make sure it’s going in the direction we want to see it go.

MP: What are your thoughts on the Twin Metals copper-nickel mining project? 

BM: Well, you know, I would certainly like to see the real rationale why they stopped a two-year study. And one of the stories goes, and I don’t think it’s an urban legend, I think it’s pretty much close to the truth: When President Trump was up to do a political rally for Mr. Stauber [Rep. Pete Stauber, MN-8] during the last election cycle, he was on the plane to some of the other Republicans and they started complaining about the study. And you know, it helps Stauber if, you know, if Republicans were more pro-mining and did more stuff.

And Mr. Trump got up on the stage and you know, said, “Hey everybody, we’re gonna be leasing that land up in Twin Metals. We’re moving forward.” He probably didn’t even know what kind of mining it was.

[Stauber’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this episode as of publication time.]

MP: What’s next on your agenda? 

BM: I think working on climate change and resiliency will be something that we’ll not only see more of in our bill, the Interior public lands bill, but also the Defense bill, where we need to build resiliency in for our Defense Department. And I’m reading the Uninhabitable Earth right now. It’s amazing if you haven’t read it, but don’t read it before you go to bed …

As the temperature changes, in Minnesota by 2050, if we don’t do anything we lose the timber and the pine in northern Minnesota. It starts looking like the Dakotas. Or like the Twin Cities or Southern Minnesota. So with that, and as that happens, the species [are] under stress.

You know, the gypsy moths and the ash borer and all of that, they can thrive better because they don’t have the winter kill. So monitoring what happens [is critical]. Then there’s going to be other plants that are going to start kind of growing into competing with the same food sources. What happens with Asian carp? I mean, there’s just a lot of things. So, part of it isn’t just preventing climate change, but it’s tracking it. It’s being resilient to it.

We know that if we reduce air particulate, not only is an individual less likely to have heart disease [and] asthma, but the air is healthier for the planet. So making sure the EPA has the tools necessary to monitor and to enforce. And so as water becomes more precious, making sure that we keep our water clean and that’s part of the whole Twin Metals … we have a beautiful body of water, we have the largest freshwater in the upper Midwest. We share it with Canada. And if we pollute, if we don’t take care of that, what will future generations think of our ethics? What will they think of our morality? What will they think of us being good conservationists conserving our water so that they have water in the future?