Bill Ruckelshaus on EPA: 'Battered Agency Syndrome?'

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- With an angry crop of conservative Republicans about to grab the reins of power in the House of Representatives, the Environmental Protection Agency is once again in danger of  "battered agency syndrome," said Bill Ruckelshaus, the moderate Republican who headed the 40-year-old agency during the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

As the respected granddaddy and founding administrator of EPA, Ruckelshaus, now 78-years-old, is worried about his offspring at a time when some members of his own party ran for Congress on a platform of abolishing the controversial regulatory agency. Incoming House committee chairs plan endless oversight hearings to rake EPA over the coals on the hot button issue of climate change. With congressional gridlock over greenhouse gas legislation, the Obama administration is under scrutiny as to how far it will go in regulating the problem using EPA's existing powers under the Clean Air Act.

EPA seems to be a lightning rod for the anti-government fervor that strikes Washington on a regular basis, Ruckelshaus said in an interview Friday at a Harvard University conference on the agency's 40th birthday. For veterans of environmental battles of yore, to some degree "it's déjà vu all over again" (thanks Yogi!). "It's cyclical. The more active EPA is, the more controversy," said Ruckelshaus, who was appointed by President Nixon as the first administrator when the agency opened for business on December 3, 1970.

Later, after a Newt Gingrich-led backlash against the Clinton administration ushered in a Republican-controlled House with anti-regulatory sentiments in the 1994 mid-term elections, Ruckelshaus expressed concern that "violent swings" in power were having a "devastating effect on EPA."

His warnings, in a 1995 essay published on the agency's 25th birthday, are highly reminiscent of where we are today:

"We should be able to recognize certain repeating patterns. And so we do. We recognize, as perhaps the newer members of Congress do not, that the current rhetorical excess is yet another phase in a dismaying pattern. The anti-environmental push of the nineties is prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the late eighties, which was prompted by the anti-environmental excess of the early eighties, which was prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the seventies, which was prompted.... But why go on. The pattern is quite clear. The new Congress may believe that it is the vanguard of a permanent change in attitude toward regulation, but unless the past is no longer prologue, the pendulum will swing back, and we will see a new era of pro-environmental movement in the future."

As he said then, the constant pendulum swings take their toll: "The impact of all this on the agency is devastating. EPA suffers from battered agency syndrome.... Why is EPA now the agency everyone loves to hate?"

In his talk Friday, Ruckelshaus recalled the environmental fervor of 1970, when "we had the smell, touch, and feel type of pollution" with visibly dirty air and water that compelled both the Nixon administration and Congress to act. He noted that Nixon talked about "making peace with nature" in his 1970 State of the Union address, adding, "Can you imagine a conservative Republican saying that today?"

Sixteen major pieces of environmental legislation to clean up the air, water, solid waste, protect endangered species, and so forth, were enacted during the Nixon administration, said Ruckelshaus, all with strong bipartisan support. EPA was created to carry them out. "Citizens were demanding something be done, and the government was responding," he said.

But Nixon himself was hardly an environmentalist. In fact, Ruckelshaus said, Nixon became increasingly disillusioned with his own environmental initiatives as the 1972 election neared and felt Congress was going too far. At a celebration of Earth Day's 40th anniversary last spring at the Nixon library, Ruckelshaus saw some of the presidential papers from that era, including a Clean Water Act document on which Nixon had handwritten "bullshit" in a marginal note. Nonetheless, Nixon "had the most extraordinary record any President has ever had," he said.

It is Ruckelshaus himself, however, who has gained rock star status in the environmental world for his steady and constant leadership over the past four decades and his record of high integrity and bipartisanship in times of crisis. At the end of the Nixon presidency, as the Watergate scandal engulfed Washington, Ruckelshaus took over as acting director of the FBI and then moved to the Justice Department, where he famously resigned during the "Saturday Night Massacre" rather than carry out Nixon's orders to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. In 1983, after Reagan Administration EPA head Anne Gorsuch resigned amidst controversy, Ruckelshaus rode back into Washington to become the agency's 5th Administrator.

Today, Ruckelshaus, a longtime Seattle resident in the other Washington who backed Obama for President in 2008, is concerned once again that EPA finds itself in the political crosshairs. Asked by this correspondent how serious the threat to EPA is this time around, he responded cryptically that he was doing "threat analysis to figure out how big the threat is," later explaining that he was privately consulting with several former EPA administrators about the depth of the agency's current troubles.

Wearing a black jacket with tan patches on the elbows, the lanky, grey-haired lawyer drew a standing ovation from the crowd attending the EPA anniversary conference, which was organized by the Harvard University Center for the Environment as well as Harvard's schools of law, government, and public health. "We have made solid progress," Ruckelshaus said, "but we can't relax or begin to slide backwards.... We've got a lot left to do."

He was largely preaching to the choir in a pro-environment audience filled with many present and former EPA alums. However, one of the speakers, C. Boyden Gray, a longtime Washington insider and White House legal counsel to President George H.W. Bush, cautioned in an interview that current environmental concerns in the nation's Capitol were not just on the Republican side of the aisle. Gray noted that Midwestern and Southern Democrats had also questioned the Senate climate change legislation and that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) was among those seeking to delay EPA action on greenhouse gas emissions. "Politically it's something EPA just ought to wait on," said Gray, who championed market initiatives to curb acid rain and ozone-depleting chemicals in the early 90s.

But Lisa Jackson, the energetic 48-year-old chemical engineer who is EPA's 12th administrator, spoke proudly in her keynote address of the Obama administration's "aggressive environmental agenda" and her hopes to get bipartisan support to "meet on a common ground." Jackson, who worked her way up the EPA ranks for 16 years before going on to become New Jersey's environment commissioner, noted that the recent mid-term elections were "threatening to roll back EPA's efforts. " She contended that the "message last month was not that people want less environmental protection.... There is no evidence environmental protection hinders economic growth."

She delivered that message throughout the celebratory anniversary week, including a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that "a clean environment strengthens our economy." Jackson, who paid tribute to Ruckelshaus "as the standard every single administrator strives to meet," also drew a standing ovation following her talk.

One of those listening closely was 19-year-old Julia Mason, a Harvard sophomore majoring in environmental science and public policy who was energized after hearing "superstars" Ruckelshaus and Jackson talk. "I am absolutely concerned" about what is happening in Washington, she said. "With a lot of opposition, it's really difficult to accomplish anything."

Mason is part of a younger generation coming along to help carry out the grass roots environmental agenda, as college students did some 40 years ago. She found out that change isn't easy while working in her hometown of Alamo, CA to get solar panels installed in the schools there. Her take-home message: "Take small steps, be persistent and patient, and you can make progress."

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Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and consultant to the documentary Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare. More

Russell is a Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor on science and the media. Russell was a national science reporter for The Washington Post and The Washington Star and appeared on PBS' Washington Week in Review. She serves on the boards of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Commonwealth Fund and Mills College and is on the selection committee for the National Academies of Science Communication Awards. She was a 2006 fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Russell is an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, and has a biology degree from Mills College.

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