Sequester seen as test for 'pretty lean' DOJ environment division

Posted: May 9, 2013

Written by

Jeremy P. Jacobs, Greenwire
Enviro crimes

At first glance, the Department of Justice's division for investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes appears to have escaped the worst of the sequester.

Attorney General Eric Holder told the Environment and Natural Resources Division last month that it, as well as the rest of DOJ, would be spared furloughs for the rest of the fiscal year because he had implemented cost-cutting measures, including a hiring freeze.

But Holder cautioned that policy only accounts for the $1.6 billion sequester cut through September when the fiscal year ends. He noted that it does "not provide a solution for the additional severe cut" DOJ faces for the next year if Congress doesn't act.

"Few, if any, of the extraordinary actions we are taking now to avoid furloughs will be available again next year," Holder wrote, "and thus furloughs are a distinct possibility at the beginning of the next fiscal year if sequestration levels continue."

Even so, former employees of the environmental division said there is little doubt that the current cost-cutting measures are already hindering the division's work.

Patrice Simms, a former deputy assistant attorney general for the environmental division, said the office had already been carefully paring down for the last few years as budgets became tighter.

Consequently, there aren't many more places where the division can cut without affecting its core functions.

"The choices at this point will necessarily be the more painful choices," said Simms, who left DOJ in August 2011 and is now a professor at Howard University School of Law.

"They have done a really good job operating a pretty lean division over the last few years. But that means additional cuts are likely to have a nontrivial impact on the division's day-to-day work. And that would do a real disservice to the public at large."

The sequester cut DOJ's budget to $25.3 billion and the environmental division's to $101.8 million, a department spokeswoman said. Because of sequestration, a hiring freeze and other budget constraints since January 2011, there are 2,350 once-filled positions across DOJ that are now empty. The impact on the environmental division, which had 432 attorneys as of the beginning of April, is still being assessed.

John Cruden, who led the environmental division during the Clinton administration, recalled that during the government shutdown in the 1990s, he tried to cut anything before reducing case work. That included any discretionary travel.

It remains to be seen whether the number of crimes prosecuted by the division will tail off. And there is also the possibility that the case load will lighten this year but pick up substantially next year if several cases are put on hold.

Cruden also noted that the effects of the sequester on U.S. EPA will greatly influence DOJ's work. If attorneys can't get in touch with the EPA official who referred the case because he or she is furloughed, it will grind case work to a standstill (see related story).

"Sequestration can be a double whammy for federal litigators," he said. "First, it may reduce DOJ's ability to travel to places that they would otherwise visit to assist them in litigation preparation. Second, it adversely impacts the federal agencies they are representing who have new limitations to contend with."

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