Bush administration backs elevation of EPA to cabinet department

By the OGJ Online Staff

WASHINGTON, DC, July 24 -- The Bush administration said Tuesday morning it supports legislation to recast the US Environmental Protection Agency as a cabinet-level Department of Environmental Protection.

Bills are pending in both the US House of Representatives and Senate for that purpose. Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor and current EPA administrator, told a Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs hearing that the administration backs the concept.

Whitman said, "The environment continues to gain prominence in the American consciousness and is routinely ranked among the public's most important national concerns. There continues to be a need for an institutional framework to protect the environment that is equal in scope and significance to the pervasive nature of this issue."

Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush routinely have included the EPA at cabinet meetings.

Whitman said, "EPA is a natural fit among the other cabinet departments. Our mission -- to protect human health and safeguard the environment -- both complements and contributes to the overall service of the cabinet. Already I have found my participation at the cabinet level helpful in navigating the many important areas of overlap between the work of EPA and other departments including Energy, Agriculture, Interior, Housing, and Labor. Quite frankly, I cannot think of a cabinet department with whom EPA does not interact."

The commerce committee hearing focused on the bill by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Me.) but Whitman said the administration favors the House measure by Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Robert Borski (D-Pa.).

Whitman explained that although both bills are "clean" in that they exclude extraneous policy issues that have derailed a dozen similar bills since 1988, the Boehlert-Borski bill offers more flexibility as the agency makes the transition to cabinet status.

William K. Reilly, EPA chief in 1989-1993, also supported cabinet status for EPA, which has a $7 billion/year budget.

Reilly said, "Some might argue that elevation is more symbolic than anything else. The symbolic value of elevation has value, for communicating priority to environmental issues. Nothing now ensures that a future president will confer de facto cabinet stature upon the EPA administrator. Moreover, we are one of the very few major nations that do not formally include its environmental agency in the cabinet."

Reilly saw three compelling reasons for the change. He noted EPA has no basic authority because President Richard Nixon created it by executive order in 1970 by merging four bureaus, each with its own statutory responsibility and its own oversight committee in Congress.

He said parity with other cabinet agencies would make it clear "the environment is not to be subsumed under other national interests but must be accommodated and integrated as federal agencies carry out their own responsibilities."

And he said the action would change the way the agency's 18,000 employees think of themselves and their mission.

"The agency is widely perceived as principally a regulator and an enforcer. A more contemporary understanding [is] that EPA is uniquely the environmental overseer, watchdog, and point of reference regarding the status, needs, and problems of ecology and environmental health in America."

Reilly said later Congress and EPA could consider reorganizing the agency's activities and determining if a single scientific template should be used to characterize threats and goals.

"But I would leave that until later. We needn't encumber this legislation with proposals that are sure to unleash protracted debate and maybe draw fire from friend and foe alike."

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