WHEN President Clinton announced 20 months ago that he was proposing to abolish the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and replace it with a White House office on environmental policy, it looked like the end of an era for the landmark National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and CEQ, its implementing group.
Congress had established CEQ in the Executive Office of the President to oversee NEPA's key requirement that all federal agencies consider the environmental consequences of major proposed actions. In its early years under President Nixon, with a staff of more than 50, CEQ also prepared special presidential environmental messages to Congress that included legislative initiatives for regulating ocean dumping, mining, pesticide and toxic-substance use, predator control, and the strengthening of antipollution laws.
No president has ever used CEQ effectively as a true advisory body on environmental policy. President Reagan cut its staff from 49 to 8. During the Bush presidency, however, its staff grew to 32, although the three-member council was reduced to just one member.
Mr. Clinton named Katie McGinty, who had been then-Sen. Al Gore's senior legislative assistant for environmental policy, to head the new White House office on environmental policy. But he never created the office formally. CEQ continued in a kind of limbo as a separate entity without assigned duties. Acting chairman Ray Clark saw his staff cut to three.
When Clinton moved to abolish CEQ legislatively by including its NEPA functions in a new bill designed to elevate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into a department of the environment, he ran into unexpected opposition. More than 30 conservation organizations, led by the Center for Marine Conservation, sought to keep a permanent environmental entity established by law in the Executive Office of the President to oversee NEPA and advise on environmental affairs.
When negotiations with Clinton administration officials proved unproductive, conservation leaders sought help from Congress. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, an original author of NEPA, and Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts opposed the transfer of NEPA oversight out of the Executive Office of the President. The most potent opposition came from Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and ranking minority member Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island.
NEPA is one of our most important laws - ``the federal government's magna carta for the environment'' - Senators Baucus and Chafee stated in a late July letter to Clinton. The president's decision to abolish CEQ ``was a mistake,'' they wrote, adding that the administration must not only maintain CEQ, but nominate a person of stature to chair it, as required by law, and provide at least 24 people to carry out all of NEPA's statutory functions.
JUST before Congress adjourned, with the bill establishing a department of the environment hopelessly mired, the president capitulated. He announced a plan to merge his office on environmental policy into the CEQ ``in a move that will give continued strength to environmental policymaking in the administration'' and advance the environmental agenda ``sensibly and effectively.'' The president said he would nominate Katie McGinty for Senate confirmation as CEQ chair. The revived CEQ is to receive a fiscal budget of $2.65 million and have a staff of 20.
The salvation of CEQ took place with no fanfare and was hardly noticed on a late September day shortly before Congress left town, when the White House press office included it among other reorganization announcements the media considered more newsworthy. The action showed the president's willingness to reverse direction when a previously announced action had not been well thought through and was not working out as intended.
The environmental movement is still waiting for evidence that the Clinton administration will give priority to environmental improvement. But for the time being at least, the integrity of the National Environmental Policy Act has been retained in law. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.