Whitman Warms the Bench

Christine Todd Whitman insists that she is a key player on the Bush team — even as she is isolated and undercut by her administration colleagues.

After a recent Senate hearing — where Democrats blasted the Bush White House’s environmental record — Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman maintained she has not been isolated within the administration. “I’m not a lone voice, I’m part of a team,” she asserted.

If Whitman is part of the team, she is, at best, a bench-warmer who rarely gets into the game. While the former governor of New Jersey has enjoyed a few notable victories since arriving in Washington, her losses far surpass her wins. And many of those losses have come at the hands of the very people who hired her.

Whitman received a boost when a recent profile in The New York Times declared that, after a rocky start, the administration’s environmental chief “seems to have parachuted to safety. She is being credited with savvier moves within the administration and even with prevailing on some high-profile disputes.”

The Times piece was an exercise in turning crumbs into cakes. It’s true that in the past few weeks Whitman prevailed in having the EPA order General Electric to pay nearly half a billion dollars to clean up PCBs it had dumped into the Hudson River in New York. And she did succeed in having the EPA revive the standards for arsenic in drinking water that were established by the Clinton administration (standards which the Bush crowd trashed early last year). On other pressing issues, however, Whitman has consistently been undercut by the president and more influential members of the administration, described even in the Times piece as a “boys’ club of former oil executives.”

In February, Bush unveiled his global warming policy — and it was a slap in Whitman’s face. Last year, he had humiliated Whitman by breaking his campaign promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and by pulling the United States out of the Kyoto accord on global warming. (Whitman had said she expected Bush to stand by his vow, and she had urged him to stick with the Kyoto process.)

Whitman, publicly defending Bush’s decision, had maintained the president’s alternative would be a serious proposal. Yet when Bush made public his plan, it contained only an offer “to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions relative to the size of our economy.”

The Kyoto accord, endorsed by every industrialized nation but the United States, would force industrialized nations to reduce global warming pollutants below 1990 levels by 2010. The Bush proposal would actually allow emissions of global warming gasses, such as carbon dioxide, to increase. Since the US economy is growing, under the Bush plan global warming emissions could also continue to rise, provided the rate of emissions growth remains less than the rate of economic expansion.

Global warming may well be the most important environmental issue of the decade, and Whitman was slam-dunked by the president.

Another public embarassment came two weeks ago when the EPA’s top enforcement official, Eric Schaeffer, resigned. In a letter to Whitman, Schaeffer — who in August earned an award from Attorney General John Ashcroft for winning tough settlements in cases against polluters — complained that “we are fighting a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce.” He noted that major power companies that pollute the air were no longer willing to settle cases; instead, the firms were counting on receiving help from the White House. At a subsequent congressional hearing, Schaeffer noted that Bush budget cuts in the EPA budget “are going to affect our ability to protect the environment through enforcement actions.”

Recently, Whitman has been depicted as having achieved a policy triumph by demanding the administration issue new “Clear Skies” guidelines — which call for a 70 percent reduction in the emission of the worst air pollutants — before it relaxed rules on power plant lawsuits.

What a puny victory — and not a true victory at that. The “Clear Skies” initiative would delay by ten years pollution reductions already required by the Clean Air Act.

Washington environmentalists generally believe Whitman does try to fight within the administration for more environmentally sensitive policies, but, as one says, “we don’t know how effectively she’s fighting.” From the outside, it doesn’t look like she’s getting much in the way of results.

If Whitman were to leave the EPA, most enviros believe her successor would likely be less aggressive in pursuing green policies. But that doesn’t change the fact that Whitman remains a player of little visible influence. She claims to be an advocate for the environment, but she is working for — and supporting — an administration that usually does not share her concern.

For her part, Whitman says she will “stay [at the EPA] as long as I think I’m making a positive difference.” If she wanted to make a real difference, she could follow Schaeffer’s lead and resign. That would certainly draw attention to Bush’s anti-green record — and finally make Whitman truly relevant in the debate over enviromental policy.


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  • David Corn

    David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief and an on-air analyst for MSNBC. He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Showdown, Hubris (with Isikoff), and The Lies of George W. Bush, as well as the e-book, 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook.