Charging that the Bush administration is engaged in an “unprecedented” effort to restrict Congress’ access to environmental documents, members of the Democratic minority are retaliating by blocking the Senate from confirming four senior-level Environmental Protection Agency officials.
Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) took the lead on the effort last week by placing a hold on the nominees in an attempt to pressure the EPA to turn over documents relating to its decision to modify the Clean Air Act as well as the agency’s involvement in a sewer overflow issue in Portland, Ore.
“This is just another example of how the Bush administration acts in secrecy to hide its egregious assaults on the environment and public health,” said Jeffords, who aligns himself politically with Democratic Senators and serves as the ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee. “I’m at the end of my rope and these holds will remain in place until our requests are satisfied.”
Jeffords said he has made 12 separate requests to the EPA dating as far back as May 2001 that the agency has failed to act upon. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is seeking information about the sewer overflow issue but so far is not satisfied with the documentation provided by EPA officials.
The minority members of EPW have accused the EPA of willfully trying to prevent Congress from fulfilling its oversight responsibility, suggesting that failure to comply with these requests sets a dangerous precedent for future administrations.
“The sword cuts both ways,” said Wyden. “Today, you have a Republican executive branch and Democrats are frustrated in the Congress. But if you set this precedent it stands.”
The minority has found an unlikely ally in its bid to gain access to these documents in EPW Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.). On several occasions, Inhofe — a fierce defender of President Bush’s environmental policies — has said it is his belief that the administration should comply with the minority’s requests. He even put it in writing in a March 4 letter he co-signed with Jeffords that was sent to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt.
But in an interview last week, Inhofe offered a caveat to how much pressure he would put on the EPA. The Oklahoma Republican said there is some information the EPA should not have to turn over, but he did not offer specific details of what documents he thinks should remain private.
“There is some information that is not appropriate and I think they are entitled to that which is appropriate,” Inhofe said of his colleagues across the aisle. “We haven’t gotten into specifically what that is yet.”
The EPA did not respond to a request for a comment on the matter. But in a letter dated Oct. 27, 2003, acting Associate Administrator Benjamin Grumbles informed Jeffords that several of the documents he requested “are not subject to release because they are internal, privileged material, or enforcement sensitive.”
Grumbles, who was nominated to be assistant administrator for EPA’s office of water, is one of the people whom Jeffords has placed a hold on. The others are Stephen Johnson to be deputy administrator, Charles Johnson to be chief financial officer and Ann Klee to be general counsel. Any Senator may place a hold on a nomination or piece of legislation in order to prevent it from coming to a vote.
Jeffords and others complain that the EPA is only producing documents that can be obtained by the general public under the Freedom of Information Act and will fully comply only with requests made by the chairman of a committee or subcommittee.
In the joint letter sent by Inhofe and Jeffords on March 4, the two senior members of the EPW panel addressed this issue in its first paragraph.
“As the chairman and ranking member for the minority of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, we are writing to express our commonly held position that the agency is obligated to respond to requests from each the chair and ranking member,” the two Senators wrote.
Democrats claimed that the EPA’s failure to turn over these documents is just another example of the White House’s decision to dismiss Congress as an equal branch of government. But Wyden warned that unless there is cooperation from the EPA on this issue, then these nominees will not be confirmed.
“I hope the administration will see that this is going to cost them a lot more than they get,” the Oregon Democrat said.