Politics & Policy

Leavitt Hold-Up

Obstruction of Bush's EPA nominee is all politics, not policy.

On August 11, President Bush announced his nomination of Utah governor Michael Leavitt to be the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. A popular three-term governor with broad bipartisan support, Leavitt should have had a quick and easy confirmation. It was not to be. On October 1, the Senate Environment Committee was scheduled to vote on the Leavitt nomination, but no Democratic senator showed. Lacking quorum, the committee chairman, James Inhofe, had no choice but to postpone the vote until later in the month.

Senate Democrats claim not to oppose the Leavitt nomination, but they are blocking it nonetheless. His nomination is being held hostage to Democratic demands for more information about Bush-administration environmental-policy decisions. As the nominally independent senator James Jeffords explained, “It has nothing to do with the qualifications. This is an opportunity we have to take. . . . We intend to use the leverage to get the answers we want.” Jeffords said he plans to vote for Leavitt, but only after taking the opportunity to examine the Bush administration’s environmental policies.

To be sure, some of Leavitt’s positions are anathema to the Washington-based environmental-activist lobby. For starters, Leavitt has been a strong advocate for greater state and local involvement in environmental policy. In Leavitt’s view, Washington, D.C., is not the fount of all environmental wisdom. Local communities should have a say in policy decisions that affect their way of life. This position draws ire from the environmentalists when local communities oppose land-use designations that could choke off their economic livelihoods. Some environmentalists also object to Leavitt’s support for local projects western preservationists and NIMBY groups opposed. There is even a rump “Stop Leavitt” campaign. Yet none of these criticisms provides any basis for stalling Leavitt’s confirmation.

Viewed in its entirety, Leavitt’s environmental record is quite moderate. It hardly fits the anti-environmental caricature that activist groups love to draw in their election-year ad campaigns. His efforts to reconcile environmental protection and economic development have drawn praise from Republicans and Democrats alike. He’s even received kind words from Clinton EPA chief Carol Browner. Washington Post columnist David Broder is “an unabashed Leavitt fan,” who praises Leavitt’s nonpartisan leadership of the National Governors’ Association and his “almost invariably creative and constructive” efforts to seek consensus on contentious issues. As Broder notes, Leavitt led regional efforts to forge an interstate compact to address Grand Canyon haze.

Former Maryland governor Parris Glendening is another proponent, due to Leavitt’s efforts to combat urban growth. Indeed, Leavitt’s advocacy of “smart growth” makes some free-market advocates uneasy. For instance, the American Enterprise Institute’s Steven Hayward (a frequent NRO contributor) worries that Leavitt could push EPA to embrace the “smart growth” agenda. Competitive Enterprise Institute president Fred Smith (my former employer) worries Leavitt could be a “Western Whitman.” This simply illustrates that Leavitt is not the anti-regulatory crusader some would suggest. Indeed, while Leavitt won’t agree with environmental activists on every issue, he won’t oppose them across the board either.

The source of Leavitt’s confirmation difficulty is not policy, but politics. Senate Democrats have decided that slowing Leavitt’s confirmation is in their political interest. The margin by which voters trust Democrats more than Republicans is greater on environmental protection than on any other issue. Thus, Democratic strategists surmise, anything that keeps environmental issues in the public eye works to the Democrats’ advantage. Some even hope to drag the confirmation to the end of the year, forcing President Bush to consider a recess appointment, thereby giving Democratic presidential candidates an issue throughout the spring. It’s no wonder that every Democratic senator still running for president has placed a hold on Leavitt’s nomination. At Leavitt’s confirmation hearing, Democratic senators devoted most of their attention to current Bush administration policies, largely ignoring Leavitt’s record in Utah. The hearing afforded a platform from which to launch more attacks on the Bush’s environmental record–an opportunity that could not be missed.

There is one other reason that some environmental activists may oppose Leavitt’s confirmation. Unlike his predecessor, Leavitt could be a formidable adversary to activist goals. New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman had relatively little experience with–or knowledge of–environmental matters when she took the helm at EPA. The same cannot be said about Leavitt, who has taken a leading role in many environmental debates over the past decade. Don’t expect Administrator Leavitt to mistake ozone depletion for global warming, or to get rolled by career EPA bureaucrats who oppose administration policy. When he takes a position as EPA administrator, he will be able to articulate and defend the basis for that decision.

There is no question about Leavitt’s qualifications, temperament, or fitness for the job. As the Washington Post editorialized, “He has a long track record of seeking compromises on environmental issues, and he can certainly manage an agency.” In the end, Leavitt’s confirmation troubles are partisan politics, pure and simple.

NRO Contributing Editor Jonathan H. Adler is an assistant professor of law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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