Bush Environmental Record Dominates Leavitt Hearing
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, September 23, 2003 (ENS) - One question continued to resurface amid partisan bickering at today's Senate confirmation hearing for Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, who is the Bush administration's nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Why would Leavitt, who both Democrats and Republicans say is a decent, hard working politician, want to take a job many believe is among the most thankless in the entire federal bureaucracy?
Leavitt responded that he had not sought the job, but had answered the call of President George W. Bush.
In his conversations with the President, Leavitt said, it became clear the two share a mutual goal of ensuring the nation has "cleaner air, purer water, better cared for land and a healthy environment."
"I agreed to offer myself for this position with that in mind," he told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "It was his commitment to the environment that attracted me to this role."
But debate over the extent of the President's commitment to the environment dominated much of today's hearing, which was less about Leavitt and more about an administration critics believe is waging an unprecedented assault on the nation's environmental protections.
"We have watched this administration roll back environmental laws and regulations day after day, week after week, month after month," said Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent.
The record of the EPA under the Bush administration is "abysmal," Jeffords said.
The sentiment expressed by Jeffords was echoed by every Democrat who offered an opening statement. The Bush administration was taken to task for not sharing information about the impact of environmental policies, rolling back clean air and clean water regulations, not enforcing existing pollution laws, undermining the Superfund program and compromising the credibility and independence of the EPA.
"It is not just the policy choices, it is the way the administration has gone about them," said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat.
Clinton says she will block a full Senate vote on Leavitt's nomination until the White House answers questions about an internal EPA report that found the Bush administration may have misled the public about the air quality in downtown Manhattan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
"Those revelations are outrageous but they are part of a pattern," Clinton said. "Time and time again, when we ask for information and do not get it or when we get information, which experts clearly say - and even lay people understand - is not accurate, that undermines the credibility that we should be able to have in our government."
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said she had a list of 50 roll backs of environmental regulations carried out by the EPA under the Bush administration and urged Leavitt to be an advocate for the environment.
"It is critical that the EPA Administrator … fight for the environment," said Boxer. "It is the Environmental Protection Agency, not the environmental pollution agency."
Republicans on the committee fired back at criticism of the administration's environmental policies.
"This hearing is not so much about [Leavitt's] qualifications … but is an opportunity for people to make and repeat unfounded and outlandish claims against the current administration in terms of its environmental record," said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.
The Congress is "fortunate that this man is willing to take this job at this time," Voinovich said. "I am sure [former EPA Administrator] Christine Todd Whitman was relieved and glad to leave the battle."
"If you want a straight shooter, if you want someone that is honest and willing to work and willing to listen, you will find it in Mike Leavitt," he said.
Democrats also characterized Leavitt as "a straight shooter" and generally praised Leavitt for reaching across party lines during his tenure as a state governor.
But it is clear they do not believe it really matters who is in charge of the EPA while Bush is President. Environmental policy comes from the White House, not the EPA Administrator, said Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.
"You may be in charge of management, but you are not in charge of policy," Baucus told Leavitt. "There is a reason why Christie Todd Whitman left. She was not in charge and she was told what to do."
Leavitt said he would be loyal to the President but would not "pull punches with him."
"That may be one of the reasons he has called on me for what is clearly a challenging assignment," Leavitt said. "I intend to be a straightforward voice and will lay out the facts and call them as I see them."
He said his goal if he gets to run the EPA, which consists of 10 regions and some 18,000 employees, is to "assure that water and air are cleaner and that we make substantial progress on the environment during my service."
The three term Utah governor said that he is passionate in his belief that the United States "deserves to have a clean and safe and healthy environment" and can do this in a way that does not compromise the competitiveness of the economy.
Leavitt touted his bipartisan work with the Western Governors Association and said he views himself as "a problem solver" and said he favors "national standards and neighborhood solutions."
"I have found that solutions are found in the productive middle, rarely are they found at the extremes," he said.
Democrats express skepticism that Leavitt would be allowed to seek a solution to an environmental issue in the "productive middle."
"You have a lot of guts taking this job because you are in a big hole to start with," Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat told the nominee. "I am not sure you have the ability - or anyone has the ability - to override the anti environmental policy this administration has set."
Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden told Leavitt that there is widespread feeling that the current EPA is overseeing a "polluters' holiday," noting that enforcement of environmental regulations has fallen under the Bush administration.
Leavitt deflected these charges and said the agency should manage for results, not enforcement actions.
When challenged about the administration's revisions to the Clean Air Act's New Source Review rules, Leavitt said the rules were in dire need of reform.
"When I talked to state regulators, they refer to these rules as the puzzle book," he said. "The rules as previously written were so complicated - there was not a state regulator who knew how to apply them."
Wyden pointed out that many state officials - including some in Utah - had raised serious opposition tot the administration's reforms.
"Your man in Utah creamed these rules," Wyden said.
Leavitt responded that the official "made thoughtful comments in a very colorful way" to the proposed rules and that his concerns had been addressed by the final language of the New Source Review revisions.
In response to criticism by Boxer and Clinton that the Bush EPA has not produced requested environmental data and analysis to Democrats in Congress, Leavitt said "there are historic tensions between branches of government that I will have to navigate."
The committee could vote on Leavitt's nomination by next Wednesday.
With a Republican majority on the committee, Leavitt looks certain to be approved by the 19 member panel. But several Democrats have said they will continue to block a full Senate vote until the administration answers a range of questions about its environmental policies.
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