WASHINGTON — MOST political observers here seemed virtually certain Congress would approve President Bush's widely applauded proposal to elevate the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet status, with nary a discouraging word. But they were wrong: Negative words during this week's Senate hearings came from Sen. David Pryor, who lambasted the EPA for having much of its ``basic work ... performed not by federal employees but by an invisible bureaucracy of contractors and consultants.''
What's worse, the Arkansas Democrat charged, these same consultants also ``work for the very companies regulated by EPA,'' thus creating at least the appearance of conflict of interest. Senator Pryor said that during the late 1980s consultants have written not only regulations but also reports to Congress and congressional testimony, and they ``even prepare the rules under which EPA uses contractors.''
Before EPA is raised to Cabinet rank Congress ought to require it to reassure taxpayers that important environmental decisions are made by the EPA, not private contractors and consultants, Pryor said. Other federal agencies also use consultants, but ``EPA has abdicated more of its sensitive work to private consultants than any other agency,'' he added.
Despite Pryor's criticism Congress is expected to approve the boost in EPA stature. Environmentalists and others in Washington say giving Cabinet status to the chief environmental agency has symbolic importance. Proponents aim to have the bill ready for Bush to sign into law April 22.
But environmentalists are not about to consider the symbolic boost in EPA's status an end in itself. They want it backed up by swift action from the president, and Congress, on a variety of fronts. Two prime examples: the clean-air bill the Senate is now debating, and the global warming proposals Bush made this week.