Trump finishes off water rule

Political Notebook

Federal agencies under President Donald Trump formally repealed a 2015 water protection rule last week, capping a political and legal tug-of-war that drew in Pennsylvania property developers, farmers and environmental activists.

On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers announced the repeal of the 2015 Waters of the United States rule — a product of President Barack Obama’s administration that prompted a congressional hearing in Altoona.

The rule redrew the list of waterways subject to federal environmental authority under the Clean Water Act, spurring accusations of government overreach from business figures who would face new regulations. Farmers, developers and natural gas industry leaders complained that the Obama-era rule — first proposed in 2014 and implemented the following year — would make it difficult to work around ditches and fields that sometimes fill with rainwater.

“Today’s final rule puts an end to an egregious power grab, eliminates an ongoing patchwork of Clean Water Act regulations, and restores a long-standing and familiar regulatory framework,” EPA chief Andrew Wheeler said.

Former Rep. Bill Shuster had taken aim at the rule, inviting fellow members of Congress and a group of business leaders to the Blair County Convention Center in 2014 for a special hearing. Natural gas industry representatives complained that permit delays under the rule would slow pipeline construction.

Environmental and wildlife advocates defended the rule and criticized business leaders who complained about permit delays under the Obama-era policy. The rule’s new reversal could provoke a flurry of lawsuits across the country.

This week’s repeal leaves the Trump administration to pass a replacement long-term.

For now, the policy is set to revert to its pre-2015 form, although a proposed replacement was introduced in December. The proposed replacement explicitly rules out certain bodies of water, including most ditches and areas that fill in response to rainfall, from Clean Water Act regulation.

The move is the latest part of a Trump administration effort to roll back prior environmental rules, including those governing lightbulbs, methane and protected federal lands. In announcing the repeal, Wheeler of the EPA said it was part of a broader trend.

“We are delivering on the president’s regulatory reform agenda,” he said.

Joyce joins

‘right-to-work’ effort

While Trump uses his executive powers to roll back agency rules, local congressional Republicans are pushing their own agenda in a decidedly more hostile environment.

Last week, Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, signed on as the latest cosponsor to a months-old “National Right to Work” bill backed by fellow Republicans. The bill would extend so-called right to work policies across the country, eliminating the need for union workers to pay dues or fees for collective bargaining representation. Similar state bills have been a mainstay of GOP-dominated legislatures, which have used them to chip away at labor unions’ coffers and membership rolls.

While many such bills have passed in Southern states, a national policy is less likely to pass without help in the courts. With Democrats in control of the House and the Senate narrowly split, right to work advocates will have little luck in Washington.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., proposed the national bill in May and has since drawn 74 cosponsors, including Joyce and Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District. The bill unsurprisingly drew praise from the National Right to Work Committee, a group established to push similar legislation and involved in several major court cases against unions.

“The bill introduced by Congressman Wilson is part of a two-pronged strategy, which consists of building support in Washington for the National Right to Work Act, while at the same time mobilizing opponents of forced unionism to pass their own state right to work laws,” the group said in a news release.

While Republicans press causes like right to work, some of their opponents are moving firmly in the opposite direction. Democratic presidential candidates — most prominently Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., — have proposed expanded union organizing rights and a ban on right-to-work laws.

Voters in some states appear to sympathize: Last year, voters in Missouri overturned a state right-to-work law in a ballot initiative.

Senators revive Medicaid work plan

Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, Republicans, including state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, are renewing an effort to set work rules for Medicaid.

A bill proposed on Sept. 5 would require many recipients of the government-funded, income-based health insurance program to prove they’re working, attending college, volunteering or seeking a job to qualify for benefits. The program has grown in Pennsylvania in recent years, especially after Medicaid expansions that helped slash the state’s share of uninsured residents.

GOP lawmakers have responded to that growth with arguments that the program is unsustainable in its current form. Work rules are necessary to protect “the people who truly need the program,” sponsor Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, said, according to WITF.

Similar bills have passed in past sessions, only to be vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf. An effort in 2017 drew a yes vote from most of the House GOP — including then-representative Judy Ward, who now serves in the state Senate. Ward is among the new bill’s 10 cosponsors.

The new bill would exempt many from the work rules: children and those over 65, people with disabilities and those who are pregnant, as well as those receiving or providing certain types of medical care and addiction treatment. While not all those receiving Medicaid fall under those categories, they make up the lion’s share of the program’s spending — and would continue to receive benefits as before.