Is Bush interfering with EPA decisions?

AP Photo/The Daily Tribune News, Dayton P. Strickland/FILE
Georgia Power's Plant Bowen in Euharlee, Ga., located about 40 miles northwest of Atlanta, is shown in this June 20, 2002, aerial file photo.

The House Committee on Oversight has been looking into whether the White House has improperly meddled with the EPA's climate and clean-air policies.

On Tuesday, the committee, chaired by Henry Waxman (D) of California, looked into documents purporting to show that the EPA watered down ozone standards at the behest of the White House. On Monday, a top-level EPA official testified that the agency's administrator, Stephen Johnson, initially favored granting California a waiver that would have allowed it to regulate tailpipe emissions, but then backed down after hearing from the White House.

Combine that with a report earlier this month from the Union of Concerned Scientists that 889 of 1,586 staff scientists at the EPA reported that they have experienced political interference in their work in the past five years, and there emerges a pretty strong case that the White House is continually overriding the advice of EPA scientists.

You won't hear that from Mr. Johnson, though. Check out this clip on YouTube from Tuesday's ozone hearing, in which New Hampshire Democrat Paul Hodes attempts to ask the EPA administrator if he ever spoke with anyone from the White House about the cost of the pollution standards. For five whole minutes, Johnson, who was under oath, dodges the question of whether he recalls such a conversation, adding that it would not be appropriate to discuss the content of that conversation if it had in fact happened. Got that?

It gets weirder. At one point Mr. Waxman unsuccessfully attempts to squeeze a straight answer out of Johnson about his conversations with the White House. He is interrupted by Darrell Issa (R) of California, who says it is his party's turn to ask questions. Waxman pounds his gavel and raises his voice: "I will have you physically removed from this meeting if you don't stop," Waxman tells Mr. Issa. [link via TPM Muckraker]

For his part, Issa seems unconcerned with how much the Decider gets involved in EPA decisions. Early in the hearing (this part of the hearing was posted on the Oversight Committee's website but has since been taken down), he says that the EPA "openly declares the president's role" in the rulemaking process, and that the president "makes no pretense" that he is not influencing EPA decisions.

Issa cites Executive Order 12866 (though not by name). Signed by Clinton in 1993, the order delegates authority to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to "coordinate" an agency's rulemaking efforts with the president's priorities.

Other Republicans tend to see it the same way. A May 19 press release from Tom Davis (R) of North Dakota, the Committee's ranking member, responds to allegations that the White House improperly interfered with the EPA's decision to reject a waiver granting California the right to regulate tailpipe CO2 emissions. In it, Davis argues that the president has every right to get involved.

"Yes, the White House was involved," Davis said. "Just as President Clinton’s White House was involved in 107 agency rule-makings." ...
"It’s safe to say that if the circumstances were reversed – if the administrator had decided to grant the waiver or accept the advisory panel’s recommendations after consultations with the White House – we would not hear from the majority today about the evils of presidential meddling," Davis said. "The majority’s problem is not with the process; it’s with the outcome."

Waxman sees it differently, and he tells Johnson as much. Citing evidence of White house involvement in the EPA's rejection of the California waver, the ozone ruling, and the ongoing deliberations over whether the EPA can regulate carbon dioxide, the California congressman accuses Johnson of upsetting the separation of powers:

"My concern, Administrator Johnson, is that you've become essentially a figurehead. Three times in the last six months you've recommended to the White House that EPA take steps to address climate change and protect the environment. In each case, your positions were right on the science and the law, yet in each case you backed down. You've received your instructions from the White House. Now that's not how our government is supposed to work. Congress passes the laws, and the executive branch is supposed to faithfully administer them. But what we see happening at EPA is that when you try to follow the law, and the science, you're overridden."
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