Boxer wants EPA's status upgraded
The chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee plans to push legislation again next year to give the Environmental Protection Agency a permanent seat in the president’s Cabinet nearly 40 years after the agency’s creation.
The move by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) adds to a chorus on Capitol Hill and inside the EPA that is warning the agency needs major reforms before it implements a new president’s environmental goals.
The EPA handles Superfund cleanup and many of nation’s biggest pollution issues. But its Cabinet-level status remains temporary, its budget is steadily shrinking and it’s had three different leaders in the past eight years.
Without permanent Cabinet rank, the EPA is, at least, at a symbolic disadvantage with the U.S. Energy Department and foreign environmental ministries that it deals with around the world.
“Senator Boxer plans to reintroduce a bill to elevate the EPA to Cabinet status because, now more than ever, the agency needs to have a Cabinet position given its central role,” a committee staffer said.
Under President Bush, the climate agenda restricted the agency’s findings on global warming and softened smog health standards, which environmentalists and lobbyists say wounded the agency’s reputation as a green crusader.
The most glaring example of the agency’s deterioration came last summer when EPA officials ordered the Defense Department to clean up several Superfund sites on its military bases. And in an unprecedented move, the Pentagon refused to comply with the order, sending angry waves through the green community and showcasing the agency’s fragile authority.
Both Boxer and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) have tried to dissect the agency’s problems through a series of investigative hearings that often lambasted the leadership of the current administrator, Stephen Johnson, a longtime EPA employee.
“People now see the EPA as merely a reflection of the White House’s failed environmental policies,” said Sierra Club Environmental Quality Director Ed Hopkins. “EPA has had no clout in the White House. Otherwise you would never see one agency thumbing its nose at another.”
Elevating the agency’s status would send an early signal that the new administration is serious about climate change, officials say.
“Psychologically, it would deliver a strong message as to the importance of the agency. It would also help strengthen relationships with leaders in other departments,” said former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who pushed to upgrade the agency’s status in 2001.
Transforming the agency into the Department of the Environment is not a new idea, but has been a highly politicized one. Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), sponsored early EPA elevation legislation in 1988, but so far the move has been unsuccessful, in large part because of a lack of widespread congressional support.
Boxer’s first attempt to move a bill on the issue in 2001 bill was cosponsored by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio).
Despite her clout as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Boxer could face stiff opposition from some Republicans. Small-government supporters are already voicing arguments against bolstering the agency, saying it’s already plagued by bureaucratic woes.
“Making EPA a Cabinet-level department has been attempted several times but has always been marred by political infighting over peripheral issues,” said Marc Morano, a spokesman for the Republicans on Boxer’s committee. “Since the EPA administrator has been a member of the president’s Cabinet since 1993, a lack of White House access has not been a problem.”
Boxer’s plan, though, may not be the only one to emerge. Some agency union leaders have launched an inner-agency petition drive, demanding the next EPA administrator, or secretary, be a high-profile environmentalist who can wield political clout similar to former Vice President Al Gore.
Russell Wiener, a union leader and scientist, says the petition will be distributed to key congressional offices and to the new president.
“EPA is a badly beaten organization, and it’s hard to get people motivated,” Wiener said. “We think it would be best to have a leader who actually knows what they’re doing.”
Both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have been pushing ambitious green agendas on the presidential campaign trail that could be boosted by a more robust environmental Cabinet post.
“The next leader has an opportunity of empowering people to do their jobs,” said former Clinton EPA Administrator Carol Brower. “Inevitably when the White House doesn’t support the agency, you have to remind people its okay for them to do their job.”
In his first 100 days, the new president could also signal the agency’s new mission by overturning a stack of environmentally unfriendly rulings, including one barring California from setting its own emission regulations.
“We’re at the point now where we can see a light at the end of the tunnel and we know it’s not a freight train,” said EPA union leader John O’Grady. “Our scientists have been advocating for years that climate change is a reality, but we’re still waiting for the agency to get on board.”
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