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Will EPA Attain Cabinet Status?

AIBS Washington Watch, November 2003

Adrienne Froelich

Since 1987, no fewer than 18 independent expert panels and 13 pieces of legislation have called for the elevation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cabinet status. Dozens of experts, including four former EPA administrators, have testified in favor of the move at congressional hearings on the issue. Every president since George H. Bush, the first to back the idea, has supported the move. Yet the United States remains one of only 10 countries, and the only major industrial power, without a cabinet-level environmental agency.

Proponents of cabinet status for EPA argue that the move is long overdue. In March 2002, John B. Stephenson of the General Accounting Office told members of the House Committee on Government Reform that cabinet status for EPA “would send a strong signal to other federal departments and foreign nations that the United States is fully committed to solving the most serious and complex domestic and global environmental problems.” Stephenson also pointed out that it would put the head of EPA on “equal footing” with other federal agencies—the Departments of Defense, Energy, and the Interior, for example—that are often affected by EPA regulations.

Despite the amount of enthusiasm for the move, Congress has failed to enact legislation authorizing it. Past legislative efforts have been stalled by disagreements over the extent and nature of other reforms to include in authorizing legislation. Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R–NY), who first sponsored EPA elevation legislation in 1988, believes the only way to achieve the immediate goal of cabinet status is through consideration of a “clean bill”—that is, one that deals only with the issue of cabinet status. “That 15 years have passed and an elevation bill has not been signed into law should make us mindful of the challenges before us,” he says.

In September 2003, the Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs of the Committee on Government Reform heard testimony from expert witnesses on H.R. 37, Boehlert’s bill, and H.R. 2138, introduced by Representative Doug Ose (R–CA). While both bills call for cabinet status for EPA, Ose’s bill goes one step further: It “reorganizes EPA into three Under Secretaries: (1) Policy, Planning, and Innovation; (2) Science and Information; and, (3) Compliance, Implementation, and Enforcement.” According to Ose, this and other reforms in his bill will improve science at EPA. Many of the provisions of Ose’s bill are identical to those in H.R. 64, the Strengthening Science at the EPA Act, which passed the House in 2002.

At the September hearing, George M. Gray from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis told the committee that such a reorganization would “go a long way to improving both the perception and the reality of the credibility of EPA science and decisions. When the science is done on one side of the house, and then injected into the policy process to be considered along with other important factors, it will help remove some of the pressures on scientists to ‘get the right answer’ and will put the decision making responsibility not in the hands of scientists but with policy makers where it belongs.”

However, others see the proposed reorganization as an opportunity for political appointees to have even more influence on the scientific process. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) opposed H.R. 64 in the last Congress because it called for the creation of a science deputy. NRDC Senior Fellow for Environmental Economics Wesley P. Warren says NRDC believes “it is unlikely that the new position will substantially advance the cause of science” and instead thinks “it is possible that this person will act as another political player in a potentially overpoliticized process.” Proponents of the provision argue that one way to help insulate the position from political pressures and ensure continuity between administrations is through six-year staggered terms, as the National Academy of Science recommended in its 2000 review of science at EPA.

But the best way to improve science at EPA, some argue, is to make sure it gets more attention from the appropriations committees. Funding for science at EPA has languished over the past decade: Sums allotted in 2002 for the Office of Research and Development, the research arm of EPA, were nearly identical (in constant 1987 dollars) to the 1988 appropriation when the first bill to elevate EPA to cabinet status was introduced. As Warren pointed out, “[EPA] currently has enough authority to produce sufficient, high-quality information for its needs, if the agency is adequately funded for this purpose.” A committee report from EPA’s Science Advisory Board concurs: “The only way in which it will be possible to meet the expanded responsibilities, while improving the quality of the science used, is for the [science and technology] budget to be maintained and increased over time.”

Adrienne Froelich (e-mail: afroelich@aibs.org) is director of the AIBS Public Policy Office.

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