Political football makes EPA job hard to tackle
More than a month after EPA administrator Christie Whitman resigned, Bush has not nominated a replacement.
Ever since President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency 33 years ago, the EPA has been politically pummeled from left and right.Skip to next paragraph
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Environmental activists see it as a muscle-bound bureaucracy, dragging its heels and caving in to political pressure. Under the Bush administration, the EPA has presided over "the largest enforcement rollback in agency history," charges Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
But to many businesses and property rights advocates, the agency's regulations and enforcement tactics smack of Big Brother. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas - a former pest exterminator who has had his own run-ins with environmental regulators - once likened the agency to "the Gestapo."
This contentious history is part of the reason the EPA has no boss at the moment. Agency administrator Christie Whitman, who announced her resignation in May, cleaned out her desk and left late last month without a replacement being named. And the closer it gets to next year's presidential election, the harder it will be to avoid a major Senate confirmation fight to fill the post. It may already be too late.
There is no doubt that environmental indicators are improving in many ways. Air pollution has declined 25 percent over the past 30 years, and the portion of Americans served by safe drinking water has risen from 79 percent to 94 percent in the past decade, according to the latest EPA figures. Still, 40 percent of US waterways are too polluted to swim or fish in, and nearly half of all Americans live in areas where the air is unhealthy at least part of the time. Hundreds of "Superfund" toxic waste sites wait to be cleaned.
Congress - including a number of important Republicans, mainly moderates from the Northeast - is acutely aware that this is a particularly vulnerable spot for Bush. Democratic presidential candidates have begun to raise the issue as well. At the same time, Bush is caught between green activists and free-market enthusiasts.
The League of Conservation Voters - the most politically aggressive national environmental group - has launched new television ads in politically important markets, such as Los Angeles, blasting Bush's record. "The Bush administration's approach to the environment demonstrates a clear bias toward the interests of the oil industry, the utility industry, and other corporate contributors at the expense of the health and safety of the public," the group said last week in its presidential report card.
At the same time, some key conservative groups are voicing disappointment with Bush as well. The Political Economy Research Center - the leading free-market advocacy group, whose experts have advised the White House - gives Bush a C-minus on how well he conducted environmental policy during his first two years.
"President Bush's administration is moving away from the principles of free-market environmentalism, when we thought he would be moving toward it," says Bruce Yandle, senior associate with the Bozeman, Mont.-based research center.