President Bush’s selection of Stephen L. Johnson as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was universally praised in Washington, D.C. Democrats and Republicans, environmental activists and industry lobbyists all hailed the pick as a positive step for the troubled agency. Stalwart conservative Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.) applauded the choice while the Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook called it a “spectacularly good appointment.” The era of good feelings did not last long, however. Once slated for a quick and easy confirmation, Johnson is now the victim of old-fashioned political obstruction as Senate Democrats again target the administration’s environmental policies.
Following on the heels of two former Republican governors, Stephen Johnson is an untraditional choice for EPA administrator. He is the first civil servant and first person with genuine scientific expertise ever nominated for the post. Unlike Bush’s first choice for EPA, New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, Johnson understands the politics and policy of environmental protection. Having spent nearly 25 years at the agency, he’s not likely to confuse climate exchange and ozone depletion and understands how environmental-policy debates typically shed more heat than light. While no conservative ideologue, Johnson can be relied upon to execute the administration’s environmental agenda with professionalism and integrity–and perhaps that is what is infuriating the administration’s critics. Unable to attack Johnson as an anti-environmental ideologue or industry hack, Senate Democrats and Bush critics are using the nomination as an opportunity to bushwhack the White House.
Sens. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) and Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) were the first to stand in Johnson’s way. The two liberal senators placed holds on Johnson’s nomination because they objected to a small yet controversial EPA study of the risks posed to children by household pesticides. Co-sponsored by the American Chemistry Council, the “Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study” (CHEERS) was designed to measure children’s exposure to common household chemicals and pesticides. The study was important because the EPA is required under federal law to assess the risks certain chemicals pose to children, and yet there is little reliable data on current childhood exposure to pesticides and other chemicals in the home. Nonetheless, many activists opposed the plan.
Under CHEERS, the agency would monitor chemical use and exposure in the homes of participating families over a period of two years. Families participating in the study would receive periodic visits from agency scientists and receive modest compensation. Contrary to activist claims, families would not be paid to increase their use of, or their children’s exposure to, chemical pesticides. The study was designed solely to assess current exposures to household chemicals, not to test chemicals on human subjects, let alone children. With this data, the EPA would be able to construct more realistic models of childhood exposure when making risk evaluations. Without the data, any such exposure models are shots in the dark. Nonetheless, the two senators objected, citing ethical concerns and the EPA’s plans to conduct the study in a low-income Florida community.
Any study that involves human exposure to potentially harmful substances raises important ethical concerns–concerns that were addressed by the agency. Four separate institutional review boards approved the study design after considering its scientific value and ethical implications. Months before his nomination, while serving as acting EPA administrator, Johnson suspended the study pending yet another independent review by an expert scientific panel. None of these reviews satisfied the objecting senators, who persisted in misrepresenting the program. Boxer proclaimed she would maintain a hold on Johnson’s nomination until the study was canceled, “never to rear its ugly, immoral head again.”
Eventually Johnson relented, explaining “gross misrepresentations” inhibited the EPA’s ability to conduct a “quality, credible” study. The study was canceled and the two senators released their holds. Johnson was confirmed by the Senate environment committee by a 17-1 vote, but still remains far from confirmation.
Sen. Thomas Carper (D., Del.), the Senate environment committee’s lone dissenter, was next to stand in Johnson’s path. Carper complains that Johnson has refused to guarantee that the EPA will conduct a “detailed technical analysis” of the senator’s proposed legislation to clamp down on emissions from coal-fired utilities. The EPA has already conducted such an analysis of the administration’s competing “Clear Skies” legislation, and there are numerous comparative analyses available from other sources. Because Johnson refused to commit the agency to a full-scale review of Carper’s favored legislation, citing the weeks, if not months, of agency staff time required to conduct such an analysis, Carper placed a hold on the nomination.
“If Steve Johnson is to be an effective administrator, he needs to be unfettered by this administration,” explained Carper, displaying a curious conception of the executive branch. A spokesman for Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) defended Carper’s hold as “one way to get the administration’s attention”; and, last week, the New York Times joined the fray on Carper’s side, calling on Johnson to “give some indication he will henceforth resist the White House’s political agenda.”
If Johnson’s nomination were to come up for a vote tomorrow, there would be few, if any, votes against him. No one doubts his ability or experience, and he is trusted as an honest broker. Yet he has the misfortune of being nominated for a politically vulnerable agency at a time when Democrats believe they can capitalize on the Bush administration’s poor reputation on environmental policy. It’s nothing personal, Mr. Johnson, it’s just politics.
–NRO Contributing Editor Jonathan H. Adler is associate professor and associate director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, and a regular contributor to the environmental weblog (The Commons Blog.