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EPA Nominee Gina McCarthy Stymied by Republican Boycott

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When a U.S. president nominates a candidate to take over the top spot at a major government agency such as the Defense Department, at least a few senators—usually from the opposing party—raise some objections, if for no other reason than to show that they will not rubber-stamp anyone the president proposes.

But yesterday Republicans boycotted a vote on Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama’s nominee to become the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She would fill the spot left by Lisa Jackson, who stepped down. McCarthy faced little dissent when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held confirmation hearings in April. But just before the committee’s scheduled vote on her nomination yesterday, which would have sent her name to the full Senate for a final confirmation, all eight Republicans on the committee of 18 failed to show up. Under Senate rules, the vote could not be taken.

The move was a surprise to committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer, a Democrat. In a last-minute letter sent to her by the Republican members, they said they wanted more answers about former administrator Jackson’s occasional use of a personal email account to conduct EPA business, allegedly to cloud transparency. After many Democrats objected loudly to the boycott—a rare event, reserved for a very contentious nominee—the Republican committee members indicated indirectly that they were not against McCarthy per se, but that their questions to her, during the hearings, about email conduct were not answered adequately. Critics of the move called it a stunt, pointing out that David Vitter, the top Republican on the committee, had asked McCarthy a record-breaking 653 questions, which she had answered.

Although neither the committee nor Boxer has released a statement yet about what might happen next, Congress-watchers say a new vote would be unlikely for two to three weeks.

More objections could arise if McCarthy’s name goes to the full Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for one, has said that he opposes the nomination because McCarthy would thwart the coal industry in his state of Kentucky. “I am concerned,” he wrote in a statement issued by his office, “that Gina McCarthy would continue to foster this administration’s radical environmental and anti-coal jobs agenda.”

The sudden blockade is surprising and disappointing because McCarthy has succeeded in bridging the infuriating gap between parties. McCarthy, 58, has been director of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation for four years, where she has developed a reputation for taking a collaborative, common sense approach to devising regulations. A shining example was her central role in setting new carbon pollution standards, issued jointly in 2011 with the Transportation Department’s new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards, which raised the gas mileage that new cars and trucks must get by as a much as 50 percent by 2025. Although the rules are challenging, automobile manufacturers as well as consumer and business groups ultimately embraced them. The regulations, McCarthy told the Senate committee during the hearings, would save Americans more than $1.7 trillion in fuel costs and eliminate six billion tons of carbon pollution.

Her efforts earned praise from Richard Eidlin, policy director for the American Sustainable Business Council. In a May 1 blog for The Hill, a Web site that watches Congress, he wrote: “It is one of the great myths of our political debate that we must choose between economic growth and environmental protection. Gina McCarthy…has spent her career proving this a false choice.” He added that McCarthy has a knack for devising solutions to environmental issues that can improve market certainties and thus create opportunities for businesses.

Part of McCarthy’s ability to reach compromise stems from her prior posts. The Boston native was an environmental advisor to five Massachusetts governors—Democrats and Republicans—including former Gov. Mitt Romney, and was commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

If approved, McCarthy could face issues that have been simmering at EPA because they are thornier than CAFÉ standards. Of note are proposed regulations on power plant emissions, a decision for President Obama on whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. (which would raise carbon dioxide emissions in North America), and the never-ending battle between environmental and business groups over enforcement of clean air and water laws. Also, EPA’s multi-year study on the controversial environmental impacts of natural gas fracking is due in 2014.

Image courtesy of EPA on Wikimedia Commons

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sisko 12:44 pm 05/10/2013

    Yet another example of our disfunctional Congress. Both parties play these silly games and they hurt the nation. Although I may disagree with many of the presidents positions, he has the right to have those he wants managing the executive branch

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  2. 2. CDBSB 2:46 pm 05/10/2013

    “He added that McCarthy has a knack for devising solutions to environmental issues that can improve market certainties and thus create opportunities for businesses.”

    This just tells me that this move was pure politics. Ridiculous.

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  3. 3. Obiwan2 2:52 pm 05/10/2013

    Yet another example of our disfunctional Congress. Both parties play these silly games and they hurt the nation. Although I may disagree with many of the presidents positions,
    To say both parties play these silly games is to imply that they are both equally to blame for governmental dysfunction which is, as it is designed to be disingenuous. The Gop is no longer the party of small government it is the party of no government. Which dovetails with the right wing nuts’ Libertarian agenda. Besides why do we need an EPA? Why not just wait till the Second Coming fixes everything? 9 out of 10 christen conservatives would agree.

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  4. 4. Sisko 3:41 pm 05/10/2013

    Obiwan– You appear to be more of a partisan than an unobjective observer of how the process operates.

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  5. 5. sault 4:03 pm 05/10/2013

    Yeah, he’s not being very Jedi-like.

    I just wish Congress could stop squabbling and get to work because there are plenty of problems to take care of. And I just wish that when politicians pull ridiculous stunts like this, the media would call them out on it. Term limits and public financing of elections would take care of a lot of these problems.

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  6. 6. Mr. Natural 5:00 pm 05/10/2013

    It has to be acknowledged that the modern Republican party simply does not believe in the democratic process. If they are not in charge they cannot accept that the majority of this country does not agree with their policies.

    Republicans today only stand for obstruction.

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  7. 7. M Tucker 6:37 pm 05/10/2013

    Republican obstructionism again. They only care about ideology. This is why we don’t have a director to the ATF. We have had acting directors since 2006. Obama should tell the Senate he will not be able to make a decision on Keystone until he has an EPA director.

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  8. 8. John A. 6:24 pm 05/13/2013

    @other commenters,

    Politicians playing politics, caring about ideology, opposing the other party, how dare they! How dare they get elected promising to build the Keystone pipeline, and then question someone on whether she wants to stop it! How dare they obstruct my agenda! You should oppose their agenda because they oppose my agenda! Forward!

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  9. 9. bucketofsquid 4:41 pm 06/5/2013

    I’m surprised the President doesn’t do a little political stuntery to hurry things along. Congress decides who gets what federal money but the treasury department disburses it and that is directly controlled by the President. I can see it now; “I have certain burning questions about the legitimacy of the allotment of budgetary funding for the state of Texas and am withholding all federal funds from Texas until all members of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee can answer them. They can schedule a meeting with me after the confirmation hearing for Ms. McCarthy.”

    It also wouldn’t hurt for Obama to order insider trading investigations on every member of Congress since we now know that the vast majority of them engage in this crime. That would be better than term limits. You can’t hold office from behind bars.

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