The head of the Environmental Protection Agency came under sharp attack at a House hearing Tuesday, with Democratic lawmakers accusing him of repeatedly caving in to White House pressure on environmental issues such as global warming and a recently enacted health standard for smog.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson rejected the characterization and said that while he frequently discusses EPA matters with the White House, the decisions are his.
But Johnson, appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for nearly three hours, repeatedly refused to discuss conversations he had with the White House, nor provide a number of documents that have been subpoenaed by the committee concerning the smog standard and his refusal to allow California to proceed with rules to cut greenhouse gases.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee chairman, said depositions provided by senior EPA staff members suggest that Johnson had been overruled or heavily influenced by the White House on recent EPA decisions on the smog standard, its rejected of a waiver for California on global warming regulations, and the EPA ongoing deliberations on whether to regulate carbon dioxide.
Waxman calls him a 'figurehead'
"You have essentially become a figurehead," Waxman told Johnson. "... In each case, you backed down."
He said in each of the EPA cases "the pattern is the same. The president apparently insisted in his judgment and overrode the unanimous recommendations of EPA scientific and legal experts," said Waxman. "You reversed yourself after having candid conversations with the White House."
Johnson, a 27-year career EPA scientist himself before being elevated to head the agency, repeatedly insisted that he was the final decision maker on the issues cited by Waxman, although acknowledging frequent discussions with the White House on those and other matters.
But Waxman's committee can only guess on the details of those conversations and communications.
Johnson declined repeated requests by Democrats on the panel to provide any details about conversations he had with the White House, refusing at one point to even acknowledge whether he did or did not discuss the smog, California waiver or carbon dioxide rulemaking with the president.
"I don't think it's appropriate for me to discuss the conversations," said Johnson.
Acknowledges Bush overrule
Johnson acknowledged in at least one case he had been overruled directly by the president.
He had sided with the EPA staff and the agency's science advisory board that preferred a "seasonal" standard to determine smog air minimums as they apply to protect vegetation, forests, farmland and wildlife, suggesting such an approach was better than using the one designed for protecting human health.
White House staff disagreed and just hours before the standard was announced last March, President Bush weighed in on the side of the staff, and Johnson relented, according to documents and depositions cited by Waxman's committee. The president's involvement in the smog standard has previously been made public.
Johnson insisted that the level of protection was "essentially equivalent" — a position disputed by a number of scientists including the EPA science advisory board for ozone, as smog technically is called.
Dr. Rogene Henderson, chair of the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, said she was perplexed by the White House position that Johnson eventually accepted. "Willful ignorance triumphed over sound science," she told the committee as she sat near Johnson at the witness table.
Republicans tried to come to Johnson's defense.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that White House involvement in EPA activities was nothing new and happened in the Clinton administration. Furthermore, said Issa, such involvement "is allowed" under the law.
Waxman, citing depositions by EPA staff members, said that Johnson also reversed himself on the California waiver issue, once being in support, but then denying it.
"I don't think that's a fair characterization," said Johnson. He said he had considered a wide range of actions, but then last December decided against granting the waiver. He said it was his decision.