The deeply boring procedures under which the Senate operates are so sufficiently riddled with idiosyncrasies that they allow for any number of goofy machinations and roadblocks. Everyone knows this. But every so often it's worth remembering just how weird and innovative they are.
And so, this morning, the Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee announced that they were not going to attend a hearing meant to advance the nomination of Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency, effectively halting the process in its tracks. Which problem is trickier to solve — Senate chicanery or the EPA's mandate, curbing pollution — is a question for the ages.
There was little doubt that McCarthy's nomination would encounter opposition. In part, that's because McCarthy, who is currently assistant administrator for the Agency's Office of Air and Radiation, has been an outspoken advocate for tighter air pollution restrictions. But the inevitable opposition is more largely due to general Republican antipathy to the mission of the Agency. During the tenure of Lisa Jackson, the most recent administrator of the Agency, the EPA became a favored target of President Obama's opponents. Month after month, week after week, Republicans called Jackson in to testify on any range of issues. (In the long run, Jackson was obstructed nearly as much in her efforts by the president.)
Politically, the Republicans' opposition makes sense. EPA tends to fit neatly into the broader Republican narrative: government stepping in to regulate business activity. Some EPA measures have gone into effect that force business to adjust, though not always to their detriment and nearly always yielding an increased economic benefit on the whole. Other efforts lend themselves easily to being mocked in political shorthand. An EPA effort to reduce airborne particulates became the EPA cracking down on farm dust. Opponents claimed that the EPA wanted to regulate milk spills in the same way it would oil; it didn't.
And then, of course, there's climate change. The EPA offers perhaps the administration's only unilateral tool to stem the emission of greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change — even if it is an imperfect one. The EPA is empowered by the courts to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, for example, meaning it could severely curtail heavy emitters of carbon pollution. That would be a significant political act for the administration to take, to be sure — but Obama's opponents are strongly committed to that sort of regulation never coming close to happening.
One way to double down on that commitment is to slow the process of the EPA getting a new Administrator. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking minority member of the committee (and whose campaign was funded most heavily by the oil and gas industry), explained the rationale for the committee walkout in a press conference this morning.
Committee ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) announced the boycott by all eight GOP members around 8:30 a.m., saying they would deny the panel a quorum because McCarthy and the EPA haven't provided answers to the questions they'd posed.
Democrats have noted that the questions totaled more than 1,000 — what they call a record. Republicans also had five “requests” for EPA on issues such as how the agency handles outside groups' threats of litigation — though Democrats said the GOP senators were actually asking the agency to offer major concessions in how it conducts public business.
Vitter also noted that the move is not without precedent. In 2003, Senate Democrats similarly skipped a meeting in order to keep then-President Bush from appointing Mike Leavitt to run the same agency. It didn't work for long; he served from November 2003 to January 2005.
Nonetheless, the current Democratic majority criticized the move, according to The Hill.
“This is wrong. And you want to know why some of us are going to be in favor of reforming the rules of the Senate? Because of things like this,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said.
Tackling the nation's air and water pollution, eventually targeting the extent to which we contribute to the looming problem of climate change is a challenge. Reforming the Senate to eliminate the gimmicks both sides love is another effort entirely.
Photo: Gina McCarthy. (AP)