President George H.W. Bush in 1990 asked Congress to send him a bill elevating the U.S. EPA chief to Cabinet level by Earth Day.
Two dozen Earth Days later, it still hasn't happened.
Despite some initial rumblings from outside groups when President Obama took over the office, the issue has largely fallen by the wayside. Given EPA's current status as a lightning rod for political attacks, environmental activists and former EPA officials who have pushed for the change in the past aren't holding out much hope of seeing a Secretary Gina McCarthy during this administration.
Proponents of including EPA's administrator in the Cabinet argue that keeping the post as a sub-Cabinet job sends the wrong signal to other countries and makes it too easy to sideline the EPA chief. They think the environment deserves as much respect as other top-level government priorities -- like education, health care and agriculture.
One practical difference between an administrator and a secretary is that the EPA chief isn't in the line of succession. Administrator McCarthy won't be sitting out any State of the Union addresses in a secret bunker somewhere. But EPA's backers say the symbolism is important, too.
"We're the only developed nation in the world that does not consider the environment a Cabinet position," said Christine Todd Whitman, who led EPA during the George W. Bush administration. "It sends a message to the world that we're not really that focused on the environment."
It can be a problem at home, too, she said. "Unfortunately, there are some within bureaucracies in Washington who will kind of look down their nose at an agency -- 'You're an agency, not a department.' So you don't get quite the same respect from time to time."
Officials in Congress and the executive branch have long waged efforts to morph EPA into the DEP -- the Department of Environmental Protection -- and boost its administrator to a secretary with full Cabinet privileges.
George H.W. Bush called for the change during his State of the Union address in February of 1990. "As just one sign of how serious we are, we will elevate the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet rank," he said. "Not more bureaucracy, not more red tape, but the certainty that here at home, and especially in our dealings with other nations, environmental issues have the status they deserve."
Lawmakers tried, but that effort crumbled. So did subsequent attempts during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations -- despite White House and agency backing -- as EPA's critics saw an opportunity to tack on broader agency reforms.
EPA declined to comment on the issue, and the White House didn't respond to a request for comment on whether Obama would support such a move.
EPA was born as an agency -- instead of a department -- in 1970 when President Nixon sent Congress his plan to consolidate existing environmental programs under one roof.
It plucked programs from the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture and Department of Health, Education and Welfare; took over the Council on Environmental Quality's job of performing general ecological research; and assumed the functions of the Federal Radiation Council, according to Congressional Quarterly's almanac.
"The government's environmentally-related activities have grown up piecemeal over the years," Nixon wrote to members of Congress. "The time has come to organize them rationally and systematically."
On the same day, Nixon sent Congress another plan to establish the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the Commerce Department that also consolidated a number of other agencies' functions.
Setting up a new agency was politically easier than setting up a Cabinet-level department. Dating back to the 1930s, Congress periodically delegated power to the president to allow for the reorganization of parts of the federal government under special procedures. The president's plans would take effect unless one or both chambers of Congress passed a resolution rejecting them, according to the Congressional Research Service. That authority expired in 1984 and hasn't been renewed, despite requests from Obama.
Creating a Cabinet-level department requires getting a law enacted, which was a tough slog even when EPA was less controversial.
"It's much harder to generate a majority to do that than it is to refuse to act on a department recommendation," said William Ruckelshaus, who became EPA's first chief in 1970 and later returned to lead the agency during the Reagan administration.
'Sometimes symbolism is important'
More than four decades later, some say it's time to elevate EPA.
"EPA does deserve Cabinet status," said Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club's legislative director. "Sometimes symbolism is important. You want Gina McCarthy to be able to bump bellies with the other department heads and be accorded the same status as those folks."
Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), the longtime chairman of the House Science Committee, tried several times in Congress to make EPA a Cabinet-level department. He said he was driven to do so because EPA administrators were disadvantaged when they traveled abroad and met with their counterparts who were at the ministerial level.
"They'd say in America, in the states, you guys put the environment in the second tier. And I thought the environment should be in the first tier," Boehlert said.
Ruckelshaus said it wouldn't hurt to turn the EPA chief into a secretary, and there may be situations in which it would help. But ultimately, he said, "the powers of the agency are really spelled out in the law itself, and whether you're sitting at a Cabinet meeting or not really doesn't matter."
Another former EPA administrator, William Reilly, said having the backing of the White House was more important than his title. Reilly was given Cabinet-level status by George H.W. Bush, and every president since has followed suit with EPA administrators. Reilly said he had more access to the president than some of the Cabinet secretaries, although that could change based on the administration.
"I was treated equally in every respect but two," he said. "I was not seated at the Cabinet table when the Cabinet was formally meeting, and I was not in the Cabinet photo that was taken."
Being left out of the photo stung a little. "If you get in that kind of office, you've got a fairly ample ego, and it gets bigger as you serve. So sure, I think you felt a little pinprick of, hmm, I'm hot stuff, I'm better than he is," he said, laughing. "But nothing serious."
Whitman found herself often correcting people who had trouble understanding her title. "It's an awkward title, a terrible title," she said. She was called secretary all the time, she said. "I'd say, 'No, it's administrator. We're not actually a department, we're an agency.' But that didn't mean much to most people. ... Why do you have to keep explaining that?"
Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, supports getting EPA's chief into the Cabinet but said the title is less relevant now, given the Obama administration's reliance on White House officials. "When we look back at history, we'll see that under Obama, the Cabinet waned in importance tremendously," she said, noting the powerful role that Carol Browner played in the Obama White House as energy and climate adviser.
'I don't see it happening'
A change to EPA's status isn't expected anytime soon.
"There's always enough controversy surrounding EPA that there will be people who will block it, and it's unlikely to be anything that a president will go to the mat on," Reilly said.
Whitman said Obama could potentially have pushed the issue early on in his administration but was focusing his political capital on getting his health care law through Congress. "Frankly, with the makeup of the Congress the way it is right now, I wouldn't try it," she said. "You'd have to expend capital to get it done because people would just not do it as a clean bill. They'd want to add all their various pet peeves or pet projects to it."
It could happen in the future, Reilly said, if a president needs to apologize for an environmental problem. They could say something like, "'I feel so strongly about this issue, I'm going to put EPA in the Cabinet' basically to distract from what they're not doing."
Short of a scenario like that, he said, "I don't see it happening."
Like what you see?
We thought you might.
Start a free trial now.