TCS Daily

Who Should It Be?

By Henry I. Miller - May 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Christie Whitman has announced that she will retire at the end of the month after two largely ignominious years as head of the EPA. Getting this errant regulatory agency back on track should be a high priority for the Bush administration, which needs to find a way to make the term "Republican environmentalist" seem less like an oxymoron.

The EPA may be the worst regulatory agency in the history of the world. Scientific principles are regarded there not as a source of guidance, but as a tool to be wielded for bureaucratic ends. Often, the EPA's career officials fail to grasp the need to balance regulatory costs and benefits, let alone the more subtle idea that not adopting new technologies and products can be risky.

When the Office of Management and Budget analyzed the cost-effectiveness of a panoply of regulations throughout the federal government, of the thirty least cost-effective regulations on the list, no fewer than seventeen had been imposed by the EPA. This impression of inefficiency is reinforced in an analysis of eight major EPA regulatory programs of the past two decades, by Washington DC-based Resources for the Future, whose study concluded that the science behind the policy often gets distorted or ignored: "EPA for a variety of reasons is unwilling, unable, and unequipped to address and acknowledge the uncertainties in the underlying science."

Many of the EPA's regulatory programs actually afford little or no protection to human health or the environment. They have unacceptable costs and divert resources from other legitimate public and private sector endeavors. The EPA's disdain for scientific principles and common sense leads to the squandering of resources that could be better spent elsewhere.
For example, a study of the cleanup of 130 hazardous waste sites concluded that "target risk levels chosen by regulators are largely a function of political variables and risk-perception biases." Because the EPA fails to tailor such cleanups to each site, the average cost per case of cancer averted is $11.7 billion - an amount that could fund the entire National Cancer Institute for almost three years!

Draining the EPA swamp will be one of the toughest jobs in Washington, and the nominee should have several qualities:

Superior management skills and experience. The agency's scope is so sweeping - encompassing air and water quality, disposal of solid wastes, uses of toxic chemicals, regulation of pesticides, protection of wetlands - that a single person cannot be expected to master the body of science, medicine and engineering (to say nothing of the law and "regulatory science") involved. The function of the agency head, then, should be primarily to ascertain who are bona fide experts, manage the far-flung empire, craft appropriate incentives for regulating according to scientific principles, and make the final decision on difficult policy questions. At EPA as perhaps nowhere else, the agency head will also need to be willing to terminate employees who are simply not up to the job requirements - an almost impossible task under civil service regulations.

Unassailable integrity and honesty. The Administrator's decision-making must meld law, science and regulatory precedents, in a way that maximizes the public interest. The incumbent needs to earn the respect of those who have a stake in EPA's policies and decisions - consumers, industry, farmers, utilities and public interest groups.

Commitment to regulatory reform. The EPA needs to rationalize existing policies, streamline regulatory procedures, eliminate unnecessary requirements and work with Congress on new approaches, including some that offer non-governmental alternatives to some of the agency's functions. These reforms should include a strict policy of "the polluter pays" principle, with the proviso that regulators must adhere to evidentiary rules in deciding guilt. (Under a polluter pays principle, the focus of EPA would be to ensure that polluters pay for the harm they cause. The EPA's current focus, in contrast, is not on punishing polluters for their damage, but on catching them for paperwork violations and on imposing across the board pollution control requirements.) Other necessary reforms include a requirement that all air- and water-quality regulations be specified as performance standards, rather than as technology-specific, "process" standards; transfer of authority for improving air and water quality to lower levels of government; and contracting out of certain product reviews. The EPA's senior and mid-level managers must be made more accountable for their decisions.

Distanced from politics. The EPA Administrator's job should not be awarded as a political plum, as are cabinet posts and many ambassadorships. Politics should be banished insofar as that is possible, with the Administrator taking the heat for unpopular decisions. A corollary is that the agency head should probably not aspire to higher political positions in government: Doing the job right makes plenty of enemies.

These are stringent qualifications, but they are not impossible to meet. My own short list includes four candidates: Elizabeth Whelan, head of the American Council on Science and Health; Jeffrey Holmstead, currently EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation; Christopher DeMuth, a senior OMB official during the Reagan administration, now director of the American Enterprise Institute; and Terry Anderson, director of the Political Economy Research Center and fellow at the Hoover Institution.

If the Bush administration is to be credible on environmental issues, it must appoint an EPA Administrator who is up to the job. Otherwise, the phrase "Republican environmentalist" will continue to get an automatic laugh on Jay Leno's opening monologue.

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