Christine Todd Whitman was always an unlikely choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). From the outset it was clear that she knew relatively little about environmental policy and would have preferred a more high-profile post. In the end, her only credential was her time as governor of the Garden State, though she was hardly known as an “environmental” governor. Late last month, Whitman joined the pre-election Bush administration exodus when she announced her resignation as EPA administrator.
Whitman’s two-year tenure at EPA was relatively unremarkable. While environmental activists have savaged the Bush administration for waging “war” on the environment, the reality is more mundane (as I noted here). Under Whitman the EPA embraced many Clinton-Gore policies, including most of the last-minute “midnight regulations” adopted on the Clinton team’s way out the door. Since then, the EPA has continued to promulgate new regulations, and made no effort to rethink or reinvent federal environmental policy.
It has become conventional wisdom that Whitman was consistently undercut by White House officials. One could just as easily argue that it was Whitman who regularly crawled out on a limb. Time and again Whitman listened to the career bureaucracy at EPA rather than Bush-administration appointees. As a result, she was regularly off-message, pushing policies and ideas without White House blessing. While the president has sought ways to spur economic growth, the EPA was busy developing new regulatory initiatives. Even where the EPA adopted much-needed reforms, as with its proposed revisions to “New Source Review” for industrial-facility emissions and a new water-quality permit-trading program, there was no serious effort to sell these policies as innovative approaches to environmental protection.
The largest conflict between Whitman and the White House was over the administration’s global-warming policy. Whitman wanted the federal government to move aggressively to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide. The White House did not. It is true that Bush expressed support for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions during the 2000 presidential campaign. In one speech — and only one speech — the president devoted a single line to his “pledge” to regulate greenhouse gases. It was hardly a major campaign commitment. It garnered no significant attention in the press at the time, nor did Bush ever repeat the position. Indeed, it is difficult to find any major press mention of the “pledge” during the campaign, let alone statements from environmental-activist groups acknowledging the purported commitment to one of their prized policy goals. On the other hand, Bush made it abundantly clear time and again that he would not support the United Nations global-warming treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol. Suddenly upon assuming office, however, Bush’s single utterance on greenhouse gases was transformed into a major campaign commitment, and the administration’s refusal to follow Whitman’s call for mandatory limits was a betrayal.
Whitman’s departure provides the Bush administration with an opportunity to bring much-needed change to the EPA, and federal environmental policy more broadly. Yet the changes that are needed are not the sort typically urged by environmentalist groups or in newspaper editorials. Former EPA Administrator William Reilly, for example, recently wrote the New York Times that Republicans should adopt new environmental-regulatory programs to attract suburban-women voters. In his op-ed, as during his tenure during George H. W. Bush’s presidency, Reilly accepts the flawed premise that increased environmental protection requires increased federal regulation. This supposition will neither produce electoral gains for Republicans nor better environmental policy.
If voters want an administration that will fill the pages of the Federal Register with environmental rules — a highly questionable assumption — then Republicans will always play second fiddle to Democrats. Environmental policy is like most domestic-policy issues in that Republican administrations will never out-spend or out-regulate Democrats. A corollary to this axiom of environmental politics is that increasing federal regulatory activity will not convince the public that a given Republican administration is “green.” The most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll reports that 52 percent of Americans say President Bush is only doing “only a fair” or “poor” job on environmental issues; 40 percent say President Bush’s record is “good” or “excellent.” These numbers are virtually unchanged from 16 months ago even though Whitman has promulgated oodles of new environmental rules during that time.
If Republicans are ever going to challenge Democratic dominance of the environmental issue, they will have to reframe the debate, much as they did with welfare. Specifically, Republicans need to challenge the idea that increasing environmental protection requires increasing federal environmental regulation. Republicans need to demonstrate that traditional conservative support for limited government, free enterprise, and decentralized political authority can reinforce environmental protection.
The best place to start would be to take aim at federal spending programs that subsidize environmental harm, ranging from energy subsidies to irrigation projects. The administration has made serious progress on this front by targeting some corporate-welfare programs and pork-barrel water projects. What the administration has failed to do, however, is make the environmental case for these policies. If Bush wants credit from the greens, he should seek it for doing conservative things — such as seeking to curb the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — rather than for regulating yet more sectors of American industry. Another target of opportunity would be to support property-based solutions to the world’s fishery problems (an issue I discussed here).
Over at EPA, the administration should seek an administrator that is willing to let fifty flowers bloom. State governments are itching to experiment with new approaches to environmental policy that maximize environmental performance without sacrificing economic growth. State capitals are the source of most innovation in environmental policy today, not Washington, D.C. It is time for an EPA administrator who will facilitate state environmental efforts by introducing flexibility into regulatory implementation and loosening EPA’s rein on state implementation programs. Most of today’s environmental problems are regional or local, not national. This is just one of many good reasons to allow more decisions about environmental policy to be made closer to home.
As a former chief executive, one might have thought Whitman could lead the EPA in a new direction. As a former governor, one might have thought that Whitman would be more sensitive to the needs and concerns of state and local governments. It was not to be. Let’s hope her successor can do better.
— NRO Contributing Editor Jonathan H. Adler is an assistant professor of law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.