Capitol Hill

EPA and Congress clash over regulatory authority

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EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has had to contend with intense Republican scrutiny for even the most mundance agency operations.

For Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, getting to know Capitol Hill has not been a pleasant experience. Her Senate confirmation process lasted more than four months and required her to jump through multiple hoops for Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Her subsequent attempts to work with the congressional GOP have not been much easier.

In contrast to the Defense Department's budget conflict, EPA is battling with Congress over its regulatory authority.

During recent House and Senate hearings, Republicans have challenged EPA's initiatives -- mandated by President Barack Obama -- to reduce power-plant emissions that contribute to climate change. House Republicans have responded with legislative efforts to stymie EPA. A leading House ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told McCarthy that Congress is at war with her agency.

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Coping with Congress
Lawmakers have given agencies long-term funding clarity for the first time in years. But the lack of budget drama could open the door to other conflicts.

Republicans' wariness of an activist EPA have been compounded by Obama's attempts to achieve through regulations what he and congressional Democrats failed to achieve through legislation. In particular, Obama is seeking to salvage the global climate change initiative that he pushed during his first two years in office, when there were strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

With close monitoring by senior White House aides, McCarthy has set an ambitious schedule to impose stronger rules to reduce the adverse climate effects of new and existing power plants. The effort requires complicated arrangements with state regulators, who have extensive authority over the utilities. In addition, McCarthy must contend with climate-change skeptics among congressional Republicans and the certainty that EPA actions will force extensive court challenges.

In short, Republicans are making her life difficult on even seemingly routine operations. More quietly, Democrats have their own internal divisions on EPA issues. As a result, even the most apolitical of management operations, acquisition activities and IT modernization efforts can be uphill battles.

McCarthy has spent considerable time at congressional hearings. During a grilling before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in early April, Republicans accused her of failing to respond to their requests and ignoring their directives. Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has urged McCarthy to slow down.

"We have yet to see fully what EPA plans to propose for existing power plants or the full impact on consumers' electric bills and on employment," he said. "But if we allow this agenda to continue, we may well see higher costs, more jobs lost and widespread problems."

At the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy has clashed with Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the panel's ranking member, over his claims that EPA failed to move quickly enough to remove self-proclaimed spy John Beale from its payroll. Beale's fraudulent escapades allegedly cost taxpayers nearly $1 million. Vitter issued a 67-page report on Beale's improper activities.

"I do think this case reflects a deeply broken bureaucracy, long term, and it's not an isolated incident," Vitter said.

McCarthy defended her actions and noted that Beale was serving a prison sentence. She went on to update the Senate committee on EPA's activities, including a new technology initiative with the states called E-Enterprise and ongoing cuts in spending and staffing.

Nevertheless, Vitter seemed more interested in Beale's transgressions.

About the Author

Richard E. Cohen, an FCW contributing writer, has covered Capitol Hill for more than three decades and is the author of several books on Congress.


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