Clinton's Cabinet Gets Greener

December 28, 1992  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Investor’s Business Daily  ·  Bill clinton

"It’s not easy being green."

So sang Muppet Kermit the Frog.

But to judge by President-elect Bill Clinton’s appointment to head up the Environmental Protection Agency and the weight being thrown around by his environmentalist vice president-elect, it may be getting easier all the time.

Leading Clinton’s greener administration will be Carol Browner, who at 37 currently heads up the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation. Clinton also says he plans to elevate Browner’s position to cabinet level.

"Hi! My name is Carol and I’ll be your enviro-dictator for the next four to eight years!"

Thursday, Clinton added to his administration’s green credentials, naming former Arizona governor and longtime environmentalist Bruce Babbitt to head the Department of Interior.

But it is Browner, Gore’s protégée, who will be the bellwether of Clinton’s environmental policies.

Browner was a legislative aide to then-Sen. Lawton Chiles, D-Fla., from 1986 to 1988, and then served as the top legislative assistant to Gore until last year when Chiles, now governor of Florida, appointed her to the top environmental post in Florida.

The appointment has been seen as an indicator that Gore will take a leading role in Clinton administration environmental policy.

"She’s a Gore clone. If you like Al Gore, you’ll love Carol Browner," said one critic, John Cooper, executive director of the James Madison Institute, a think tank in Tallahassee, Fla.

Another critic, Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Washington based libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, calls Browner "Gore’s water girl."

In her remarks at Clinton’s press conference, Browner said she felt fortunate "to be moved and encouraged by Al Gore’s vision of environmental sanity, and generosity of spirit."

Gore, however, downplayed their connection, saying he had merely recommended his former staffer.

Environmentalists are ecstatic over Browner’s nomination.

"Carol Browner’s appointment is like a breath of fresh air after 12 years of choking smog," said Sierra Club Chairman J. Michael McCloskey.

Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society, described Browner’s selection as "a brilliant move for the nation and a harbinger of incredibly good things to come."

Fear not, Kermit. Being green is getting easier.

And Environmental Defense Fund Executive Director Fred Krupp called her "an outstanding choice."

Critics note that Browner has never worked in the private sector, but began working for government even before she graduated from the University of Florida Law School in 1979. From 1983 to 1986 Browner also worked for Citizen Action, a labor-affiliated Washington group where her husband still works.

"She hasn’t been working in the private sector and doesn’t bring in that sense of balance," said Dominic Calabro, the president of Florida TaxWatch in Tallahassee.

"I think every regulator should have some understanding of the problems of the industry they are regulating," Calabro said. "The absence of that experience speaks poorly of the candidate and her ability to see the whole picture. It doesn’t mean you should be sympathetic to the industry you regulate, just that you must be understanding of the consequences."

Said Cooper: "She’s almost always on the other side of someone who wants to produce something or create a job."

He added, "Given a choice between competing environmental positions, she will line up with (the) most extreme."

The media has been presenting Browner as a pragmatist, dedicated to the environment but cognizant of the needs of business and the importance of economic growth.

"The Nominee for EPA Sees Industry’s Side, Too," ran the headline of a The New York Times article on Browner.

Some potential critics are cautiously hopeful there may be some truth to this.

Robert Hahn, a resident economist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, criticizes the way Browner handled a problem concerning sugar cane fertilizer runoff into the Everglades.

But he said that when he met with her to advocate a market-based answer to the problem, "We had a constructive interchange."

"I think she was basically receptive to new approaches," he said,

However, one Florida businessman, speaking anonymously, said: "I’m astounded that you heard that industry likes her. I don’t know anybody who likes what she’s doing."

"The belief of industry here is that she likes the three Ps, — prohibit, pursue and punish," he added. "I think her comprehension of the environmental mechanism is warped and not at all conducive to cleaning up the environment or (helpful) to industry."

Calls Unreturned

The businessman predicted that most calls to Florida businesses that had had trouble with Browner’s department would not be returned. He was right.

"They’re frightened," he said. "There is intimidation out there, a feeling that these people will put you out of business if you don’t do what they want you to do in writing out checks to them."

He added that one apparent motivating factor for Florida environmental regulators is, "They don’t get enough money to run that agency and so they set out to extract it through fines. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a call (from other businesses) about what’s happening in the Department of Environmental Regulation."

Calabro agreed. "There has been the sense that the (department) is very zealous and rather than protecting the environment there is more of an effort to litigate and fine companies."

Florida’s environmental agency doubled the amount of money it took in fines after Browner took over.

The two Cabinet positions that currently have the greatest environmental clout are the departments of the Interior and Energy. In addition to Babbitt at Interior, utility executive Hazel O’Leary was appointed to be Energy secretary.

For the past three and a half years, O’Leary, 55, has been the executive vice president of corporate affairs at Northern States Power Co., representing the Minneapolis-based utility in regulatory proceedings.

Retiring Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., had been considered the front-runner for the Energy spot. According to a report in the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, Wirth was knocked out of the running in part because of his uncertain relationship with Gore.

The paper predicted a possible "environmental turf battle" between Wirth and Gore. An aide to Wirth said Gore would not want to share jurisdiction with "someone smarter than him."

Why Wirth Lost Out

The newspaper also recounted that Gore and Wirth led opposing sides on the recently enacted cable television bill.

Al Gore’s been testing out
his strength vetting cabinet appointees.

Wirth may also have been viewed as a liability because of his ties to the S&L industry and because of a blistering article he wrote recently criticizing congressional gridlock.

Further, by appointing O’Leary, who is black, Clinton has landed what is cynically known as a "two-fer" — meaning two minority or special interest groups satisfied with one appointment.

O’Leary is not without government experience, having served in energy posts under Presidents Ford and Carter and currently serving as co-chair of the Department of Energy’s State Energy Advisory Board.

Environmentalists appear warily optimistic about O’Leary.

Scott Denman, executive director of the Safe Energy Communication Council in Washington, said he was hopeful O’Leary will "now represent American people instead of utility stockholders" and would become "an agent for change."

O’Leary has been lauded for implementing conservation incentives at Northern States. On the other hand, she has run up against environmentalist resistance on a few occasions, as with her unsuccessful effort to burn PCB-contaminated oil at one power plant.

Monopoly Experience

Businesses may be encouraged by O’Leary’s private-sector experience, although still concerned because her experience has only been at a monopoly protected from competition.

O’Leary is basically an unknown to policy-watchers. But Robert Bradley, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which encourages free-market energy policy, is pessimistic due to "some of the statements (O’Leary) has been making."

Bradley noted that the DOE was formed in response to perceived oil shortages in the 1970s and that the world is now awash in cheap petroleum.

"I still think it’s a live question whether we should have an Energy Department, whether we should be subsidizing fuels at each other’s expense," he said.

"The original purpose of DOE was to help us through energy emergencies, but by golly they found another mandate, nonmarket conservation," he said. "Now, it’s got a mandate to grow, which I’m sure is good news to people in that agency.

Babbitt, 54, is currently president of the League of Conservation Voters.

In the introduction to the group’s 1991 Environmental Scorecard of Congress, Babbitt wrote, "We must identify our enemies and drive them into oblivion," a statement some found disturbing.

Babbitt Critical

"My fellow Americans, if you think this room is green — you should see my advisors!"

Babbitt was critical of both the Bush and Reagan administrations and Congress for everything from their support for offshore drilling to their failure to take strong action on global warming to nuclear weapons testing.

According to news reports, Rep. Bill Richardson, D-NM, had been considered for the Interior post, but environmentalists feared he would be too weak to oppose ranching and mining interests. Again, Gore is said to have been important in rejecting Richardson.

"When (Babbitt) was governor here, he had fairly good views on federalism and federal types of issues," said Michael Sanera, professor of political science at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and president of the Arizona Institute for Public Policy.

"If he emphasized that at Interior, that would be a pretty positive sign," he said. "On the other hand, he’s a self-styled environmentalist and he could follow through on some of the radical environmental agenda."

He added: "Babbitt was one of the more moderate Democrats, not part of the extreme left-wing of Democratic Party by any means. On the other hand, the radical environmental movement supported Clinton, and Babbitt is going to have to deal with that. There will be tremendous pressure from groups that feel they should have their policies instituted."

Others agree.

Doctrine Of Multiple Use

"I think he will come to the Department of Interior with the most comprehensive view of land use since Harold Ickes, President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointment," said Phil Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a Denver-based think tank for economic policy, adding that "a lot of people won’t be happy with it."

Burgess said, "He’s against the doctrine of multiple use," which means he believes that "commercial production of timber, minerals, and livestock infringes on broader public values which he thinks of as open space, wildlife, and wilderness."

One person very unhappy about that is Myron Ebell, the Washington, D.C., representative of the National Inholders Association. Inholders are persons who own land adjacent to or surrounded by federal lands.

Ebell believes Babbitt will push Clinton to raise the grazing fees for ranchers on federal lands and encourage the mining industry to move overseas by making it more expensive to dig on federal lands. He also said timber cutting likely would be curtailed.

"The timber industry is about dead in the Northwest," he said, "and that’s the third industry that would be attacked."

Ebell believes there would also be a massive increase in the rate of federal land purchases. "The federal government already owns 30% of the country," he said. "How much more do they need?"

Still, the wary eyes are on Browner, and on Gore himself.

Golden Opportunity?

In addition to the influence on the Browner appointment, Gore reportedly flexed his muscles in helping to scuttle the nomination of Lawrence H. Summers, the chief economist at the World Bank, as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Summers was criticized by environmentalists for his views on protecting natural resources.

But while many critics look forward to the next four years with dread, some sense a golden opportunity.

"It’s put up or shut up time for them now," said Cato’s Taylor, "and either way they lose."

Taylor added: "If they put up and get the kind of environmental regulations and taxes they’ve been advocating, they’re out of the government. If they don’t, it shows they never really believed all the apocalyptics they were throwing around. I’m waiting for the ’wrenching civilizational change’ Gore told us in his book we’d have to undergo."