Whitman's tough path at the EPA
Early this month, at Washington's clubby Gridiron dinner, Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman made a crack that caused some Republicans present to groan.Skip to next paragraph
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In 2000, Ms. Whitman said, she'd been excited to learn that she was one of George W. Bush's possible picks as vice president. But after the election, when she was offered the EPA job, she discovered that she was on a different list. "It turned out to be the short list of Republicans who care about the environment," she said.
The black-tie Gridiron is supposed to be a satirical, and usually hush-hush, affair. But to chide your own party in front of hundreds of reporters for perceived indifference to clean air and water well, that takes guts, especially when President Bush himself is in the audience.
Then again, Mr. Bush said from the beginning that he wanted someone tough at EPA's helm. And Whitman is nothing if not pugilistic. As a child she owned boxing gloves. As an adult she rose to become governor of New Jersey, a state whose politics can be defined by the phrase "contact sport."
Which makes the events of the past year all the more interesting. Some of the biggest decisions about the environment are now made in the Oval Office, not the EPA, say critics. It was the White House, for instance, that decided to back out of the Kyoto agreement on global warming.
Back to the Gridiron, then. Was Whitman's comment a simple gibe, an example of we-kid-because-we-love? Or was it the jab of a frustrated administrator?
The past year has been a "rollercoaster," Whitman herself admits. But in a recent interview she says that depictions of her differences with the administration have been overblown.
Her relationship with the White House "has been what I expected it to be having been a governor and having had a cabinet of my own," she said.
Any of last year's big-headline environmental controversies might have ended Whitman's career as a federal bureaucrat before it had really begun. But she is still hanging on, after what she calls an initial six months of "scrambling" to comply with a White House-ordered review of last-minute Clinton regulations.
And now, she says, she is actually steering her agency.
"We are in a more reasoned, more controlled approach. We're able to put together our priorities," she said, seated at a lacquered conference table in her ballroom-sized office.. (For complete interview, see csmonitor.com)
Administration critics have cast Whitman as a lone voice of conscience, arguing for environmental protection against a White House fond of oil derricks, coal fields, and gas pipelines. For instance, at a hearing earlier this month, Sen. Joseph Lieberman a potential presidential candidate who sees the environment as an issue on which the administration is vulnerable praised Whitman for waging a "fierce battle" alone.
That's an image Whitman herself rejects. "That's way overblown," she says of Lieberman's description.
Too many people depict environmental policy as a zero-sum game, she says. It's industry vs. the environment, and if one wins, the other must lose.
But reality is more complicated than that. "It is possible, in fact necessary, to have a strong economy to have a healthy environment, because you need the money that the economy throws off to invest in protecting the environment," said Whitman.
Internal policy disputes, she explains, are "rarely" about the goals and much more often about how to reach them.
The EPA chief is the administration's main voice on the environment, but far from the only one, Whitman points out. For that reason she informally lunches once a month with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. At the White House, she talks regularly with National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, with whom she has strong personal rapport, as well as with other top advisors.
Whitman is right that plenty happens on the environment outside the EPA. She weighs in but only up to a point. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, issued new rules in January that overturned its "no net loss" of wetlands policy. Environmentalists are howling and so is Whitman, at a lower decibel level. "We do feel that there needs to be protective measures and we're working with [the Army] on it," Whitman says.
Earlier this month, the Senate took up the issue of fuel efficiency in its energy bill debate. Rather than raise corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) standards on their own, Senators voted to send the issue to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for review and action within 15 months. Whitman supports such a review process, but is also for a tougher CAFE standard.