Green Money: The Perpetual Motion Machine

The Washington Examiner is publishing a five-part special report in association with Pajamas Media on “Big Green”: the alliance of the Democratic Party, environmental groups, and activists in the progressive movement. It’s not just a band of flannel-shirted environmentalists any longer; it’s become a big-money, major player in Washington power politics and American elections.

In the third of five pieces, we examine how "Big Green" uses its political power to get taxpayer money, which is then used to enhance its political power.  The result: a self-perpetuating environmental activism industry, funded by taxpayers.

In today's Examiner, the "Big Green" series looks at how the environmental activism industry is funded. With the dues and contributions of millions of environmentally concerned citizens, of course, the various environmental groups start out with millions of dollars in annual revenue, and literally billions of dollars in assets, all dedicated to protecting the environment; that must be the source of their funding.

Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

Because of convenient peculiarities in the laws, and some special relationships with the federal government, a large part of the environmental groups' funding for legal aspects of their Good Works comes, not from their own assets, but directly from the federal government.

This can work in several ways.  First, environmental groups receive federal grants that provide cash to the group; cash, being fungible, can be used to pay attorneys and staffers on many different projects. While federal grants are, in theory, targeted to a specific area of research, the acceptable "overhead" charges can pay for a fair bit of staffer time between grants. (This, by the way, isn't inherently illicit: any non-profit that operates on "soft money" needs to be able to bridge salaries from one grant to the next in order to retain their best people.)

Second, sometimes the EPA or Department of the Interior will file a suit on their own behalf, but then allow various environmental groups to join the action as co-plaintiffs. Some environmental groups, like the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, specialize in these sorts of legal actions. Often, if the EPA wins a judgment, the result will be that the loser pays not only their own legal fees, but also pays fees or otherwise compensates their co-plaintiffs. If not, these groups at the very least get to piggyback their own legal work on the EPA's  vast hoard of government-paid lawyers, leveraging whatever money of their own they do invest.

The third approach is the strangest. As Mark Hemingway's piece today explains, in certain cases, the EPA actually pays environmental groups that are suing the EPA.

The legal rationale is simple enough, at least to a lawyer: in cases like Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA could hardly sue itself. There must be another party with standing; if it just happens that the EPA is also giving the same parties a little money -- in this case, a measly $7,656,829 minimum -- that's not important.