At a swanky League of Conservation Voters dinner last month in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania Democrat Katie McGinty, who is running to unseat incumbent Republican senator Pat Toomey this fall, recalled an episode from her time working in Bill Clinton’s White House. She recounted her 1996 push, as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to designate 1.8 million acres of Utah wilderness a national monument. She praised her former colleagues, many of whom were sitting in the audience, for their help in bypassing Congress by “dusting off the Antiquities Act” and using it to “protect and celebrate our heritage.”
The message may have seemed a sensible one in a room of environmentalist donors, but it was strange that she raised the episode at all in the middle of her close Senate race with Toomey, given that it marked a low-point in her professional history.
The Clinton administration’s sudden decision to set aside land brimming with untapped coal and natural gas for what would become the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument sparked a firestorm in Utah and on Capitol Hill. McGinty kept lawmakers in the dark until the decision had already been finalized, costing one Utah Democrat his House seat and earning her the ire of elected officials on both sides of the aisle.
Hearings were called, and lawsuits threatened. Leon Panetta, Clinton’s then chief-of-staff, seethed at McGinty’s “sneaky” behavior, and at least one Republican lawmaker never forgave what he and his aides described as her bald-faced deception.
Bill Clinton’s re-election prospects were far from certain in the summer of 1996. The administration had angered green activists in 1995 by allowing a timber-harvesting provision into a budget bill. Environmentalist groups called it “logging without laws.” The White House was eager to avoid any trouble with the Democratic base amid Clinton’s reelection campaign, especially given the historic beating Democrats had taken in the midterm elections two years earlier.
It was against this backdrop that McGinty, then the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, pushed to designate a massive swath of southern Utah as a national monument, arguing in a memo to the president that the move would help “overcome the negative views toward the administration created by the timber rider.” She was more blunt in a separate missive to Vice President Al Gore, for whom she had previously worked as a legislative assistant in the Senate, writing that “the enviros have $500,000 to spend either for us or against us.”
The federal government had routinely used the National Environmental Policy Act to set aside sensitive lands for protection. But that process entailed long waiting periods for comment and review, during which state and local lawmakers and their constituents could weigh in on a proposal. Because the land in question contained a trove of natural resources — particularly coal reserves, which state lawmakers had long planned to tap as a source of funding for Utah’s schools and hospitals — the White House anticipated that a NEPA designation would entail significant pushback and delays.
So McGinty and her allies devised a workaround. They began drawing up plans to protect the Utah land under a different statute, the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gave the president nearly unchecked authority to declare any tract of land protected.
Hearings were called, and lawsuits threatened. Leon Panetta, Clinton’s then chief-of-staff, seethed at McGinty’s ‘sneaky’ behavior.
The Antiquities Act, perhaps because of the broad power it grants a sitting president, had typically been used only after consultation with local and state lawmakers affected by the decision. But there was no consultation this time around. Even Bill Orton, then Utah’s sole Democratic congressman, was kept in the dark until news of McGinty’s fast-tracked plan leaked to the Washington Post on September 7, 1996, according to testimony in a House hearing on the episode the following year. Utah’s Republican delegation was furious. Senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett demanded a sit-down with McGinty and Bruce Babbitt, the Secretary of the Interior. There, McGinty reportedly told the concerned lawmakers that no decision was imminent. McGinty “looked me in the eye and said, ‘Senator, there is no map. We are not that far along,’” Bennett recalled during congressional testimony in 2001. “‘This is just an idea. There is no map.’”
“She looked across the table and lied to Hatch and Bennett’s face, saying ‘nothing is imminent, no decision has been made,’” says Tim Stewart, who at the time was Bennett’s top advisor on environmental issues. “Just flat-out lied, top to bottom.” A map of what would become the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument appeared in the New York Times just three days later, on September 17. The day after that, at the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and without a single delegate from Utah present, President Clinton announced the decision to designate the monument.
“Twenty years after the fact, [Bennett] still deeply, deeply resented Katie McGinty’s dishonesty toward him,” says Stewart, who remained close to Bennett until his death last spring. In later congressional hearings, McGinty never denied Bennett’s characterization of their meeting.
#share#Some of McGinty’s fellow Democrats were as upset as Bennett. A 1997 U.S. News and World Report article revealed that Panetta balked at the plan just two days before the public announcement; George Stephanopoulos, a senior adviser to Clinton at the time, joined Panetta in expressing his misgivings. The two were particularly upset that McGinty had kept Bill Orton, Utah’s sole Democratic lawmaker, in the dark about her plans. (Orton would end up losing his bid for reelection in 1996, a result widely attributed to the anger over the monument designation.)
House Republicans issued a subpoena for McGinty’s communications about the proposal, and threatened to sue when the White House dug in its heels. She and Babbitt were called before multiple congressional committees. Here, too, she received little support from her colleagues.
“She and Babbitt were testifying at the same hearing, and the members were just blistering McGinty,” Stewart says. “And you watch Babbitt slide his chair further and further away from her, and she was sitting there alone. It was actually quite funny. He just sort of leaned out and let her take it.”
The episode hung around McGinty’s neck for years afterward. During a 2003 confirmation hearing for her new job as head of environmental protection under Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, state senator Mary Jo White brought up the “troubling ethical considerations and credibility questions” raised by her conduct in spearheading the Utah proposal.
“My boss at the time felt she had to put [McGinty] through the paces and air publicly the concerns that she had,” says Patrick Henderson, a former longtime staffer for White. “To say, ‘Concerns have been raised about your honesty in interactions with public officials in your past job, and we’re not gonna tolerate that in Pennsylvania.’”
Similar concerns surfaced in a fight over mercury emissions during Rendell’s first term. Though Republican lawmakers came to her with several counterproposals, McGinty had already settled on a plan and had no intention of compromising or reviewing alternate points of view. “It was her way or the highway,” says Henderson, who claims McGinty sought to discredit White and other senators by directing environmental groups to personally attack the opposing lawmakers.
#related#The Toomey campaign has so far refrained from attacking McGinty over her role in the monument kerfuffle, and McGinty’s staff is downplaying her decision to bring it up in her appearance before the League of Conservation Voters. “We figured that Senator Toomey and the NRSC would try to bring up decades-old nonsense to attack Katie, but this one isn’t even clever or creative, it’s just lame,” says McGinty communications director Sean Coit.
But a few old hands in Harrisburg aside, Henderson says most Pennsylvanians are unaware of McGinty’s controversial D.C. past. And state Republicans seem unlikely to let it rest, especially now that she’s brought it up herself.
Despite those potential political repercussions, Stewart isn’t surprised that McGinty dredged up the incident before an environmentalist audience. “Look at the people she was speaking to,” he says. “Those are the people that cut the checks.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.