Former EPA chief Whitman talks about direction of GOP, years with Bush admin

Is the Republican Party losing touch with moderates? Did the Bush administration botch its message on climate policy? Former EPA administrator Christie Whitman joins OnPoint to discuss these and other issues, including how much direct access she had to the president and why she resigned when she did.


Darren Samuelsohn: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios in Washington is former U.S. EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, also the former governor of New Jersey. Thanks for being with us today.

Christie Whitman: My pleasure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's start off with the time since you've left the U.S. EPA. There's been two administrators and three acting administrators, I guess Steven Johnson now nominated.

Christie Whitman: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: It's on a level of, I guess, in terms of shakeup or changes as we've seen during the Reagan administration, Carol Browner stayed for a full eight years. I'm just curious, your thoughts, the mix ups at EPA at the top. How does that affect the EPA's ability to continue to --

Christie Whitman: Oh, it doesn't affect its ability to continue to function because it's, so many good career people who have been there for so long, as fact as an agency over all, it probably has the longest serving members, the career staff, of any of the departments and agencies in the federal government. So they really keep things going. Obviously, it's tough when you don't have an administrator up top to take it to the Hill, the issues to the Hill and things like that. But the business of the EPA, which is a regulatory business, they keep going and those are driven by statute and by timelines and those things continue. Now they have an excellent person in Steve Johnson as the nominee.

Darren Samuelsohn: He was one of your assistant administrators at the time?

Christie Whitman: Yes, he was and he's a career person who we persuaded to go to the political side because we thought he could do a good job as a deputy, acting deputy and he's just been terrific. He's a substantive person who knows the issue. He knows the agency well. The agency respects him, the people at the agency respect him and they respect the work he's done. So it's going to be a very good mix.

Darren Samuelsohn: No surprise that Bush picked him as the EPA administrator?

Christie Whitman: Well I, he was surprised, I know that. He didn't think it was actually going to happen at the end of the day and I was hopeful, but I didn't know it would.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Let's talk about your book, "It's My Party Too." It came out of the end of January, a lot of things in this book to talk about. First off, over all what your message here is you're talking about the Republican Party and you're going back to your childhood and talking about your parents, taking us through the Goldwater and the Rockefeller campaigns in 1960, all the way through Bush, Reagan and to today. A couple of things that you say about the Bush administration that I'd like to just bring out, here, you say, you called Bush the most socially conservative president of my lifetime. You also say, "We've come a long way since 1960 as a party, and I think that despite the 2004 victory," referring to President Bush, "in a very real sense we've lost our way." Where do you see the Bush administration, on the environment, going too far to the right and how do you think that they, going forward here, I mean how are they politically hurting themselves, I guess?

Christie Whitman: Well first of all, that isn't really what the book is about. The book is about the future and the book is about the party and the nature of politics in our country today and the way people get into their bunkers so fast and the animosity that is there because we are focusing more and more on the partisan base rather than reaching out, both parties are doing it, reaching out to the middle and bringing the center in. Part of the concern, what I do is I use some of the examples of what I saw when I was at EPA, as well as governor, of how this hurts in policymaking, for instance, when we, when this administration disengaged from the Kyoto Protocol there was no surprise in that. I mean President Clinton hadn't taken it up after the first try and it was defeated 95-0 by the Senate or the idea of it was. They never tried again. They knew it was never gonna pass in the United States, but the way the president did it was to send the message to focus on the base, on those 4 million Christian evangelicals who had not voted in 2000. In doing that, we didn't have the subtlety of saying we disagree with the protocol. We don't think it's going to solve problem. We're not going to be a signatory to the, signator to the treaty, but we're still going to be engaged in the process. We didn't talk about that part at all, and we sent this message that we're just not interested. So for people in this country who do care about the issue they were very discouraged and of course our allies around the world were extremely upset by that because the rest of the world really thinks climate change is an enormous issue, to a degree that we don't in this country yet. The thing about it is the president is engaged. He did call for an 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas intensity. We spend more today than we ever have, over, well it was $4.3 billion when I left office, the EPA. So I think it's over $5 billion now in climate change research and technology development. We are in relationships with other countries. We have bilateral, multilateral treaties to develop new technology. So the president is very involved in this. He does care about it, but the message was delivered in a way that said we don't, we're not gonna go near this.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Christie Whitman: And I believe that's hurt him over the long run.

Darren Samuelsohn: In terms of overall White House interaction with the U.S. EPA, while you were there, and I guess we can talk about it after as well, there has been criticism that the White House played a role in many things that the EPA was trying to do. Let's take a look of a clip. We had former EPA Administrator Carol Browner on the show. She talked about your time at EPA and what she saw and as well comparing it to her time during the Clinton administration. Let's take a look at that.

[Clip begins]

Carol Browner: As you describe it, and as I heard her say in some interviews, she was worried about the White House reaching into EPA and telling EPA what to do. That didn't happen in my experience, but what did happen is advisers to the president might take a different point of view. They didn't reach into the scientists, when I was at EPA, and tell them what to do. So what I would have to do is go straight to the president. If a White House adviser had been reaching into the EPA science and to the lawyers and telling them what to do, I would have immediately gone to the president and demand that it be stopped, instantly it'd be stopped.

[Clip ends]

Darren Samuelsohn: If I could get your reaction.

Christie Whitman: Sure. I don't remember any instances where I said that I was concerned that the White House was interfering directly with scientists or anything like that. In fact, I will say very definitively, from my period of time at EPA, we didn't stack our advisory boards. We didn't change the scientific opinion. The White House was very concerned and was involved in how messages were delivered and the kinds of issues about which we talked. Come on, Carol will say the same thing was true. Certainly Al Gore took a real interest in the environment and he was influential, I'm sure, in the kinds of issues that they looked at and priorities that they placed. That's the nature of an agency when you work for an administration because it's the president who sets the policy. You weren't elected anything. You're there to carry out their policy. So there's always a tension between the CEQ at the White House and the agency. That's been historic. It's probably grown over time as the CEQ matured as a body and people want to have their oar in and certainly for an agency that is regulatory, that makes people spend a lot of money or change behavior on benefits that sometimes they won't ever see, there get to be tensions. There's no question about it, but I, the president always said to me, "If you ever have an issue where you need to talk to me, just come to me. Blow away the palace guard, the White House staff and come to me." I always took him at his word.

Darren Samuelsohn: How many times did that happen?

Christie Whitman: You don't abuse it though. I was just gonna say, you don't abuse that because he is the president and he's got a lot of things on his plate. I went to him on a couple of issues.

Darren Samuelsohn: And did he listen to you? Do you think --

Christie Whitman: Oh yeah.

Darren Samuelsohn: Did he make decisions based on what you were saying?

Christie Whitman: Oh, I think so. He didn't always come down exactly the way I saw it, but that doesn't mean he didn't take into account what I was saying. Again, you have to understand that just because you don't "win," it's not a win-lose, it's about moving things forward and you are there at the pleasure of the president. You are serving the president. So he's got to make decisions based on a bigger picture that he sees and I know that I, we had very good discussions. I know that some decisions were made and changed because of issues that I would bring to him, but they didn't always come out the way I wanted them to.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's talk, Bush has a second term now for another three years and 10 months. Where do you see the Bush administration going over the course of a second term on environmental issues and when do they start thinking legacy and what exactly do you think a legacy might entail for President Bush? What do you think he's thinking about?

Christie Whitman: Well I think they are thinking legacy right now. I mean that's the nature of a second term. You are kind of freed from some of the constraints of a first term because you don't have to worry about re-election again. So, you saw it in the new regulations, on the CARE regulations --

Darren Samuelsohn: Yeah.

Christie Whitman: The interstate rules that they just promulgated which have gotten pretty, from what I've seen, universally good marks. The president said to me, on more than one occasion, that he wants to make sure that not only is there no net loss of wetlands, there's an actual increase in the number of wetlands protected, the number of acres. And I'm sure you're going to see some action on that level as well. What will happen, I would hope, is that there'll be a freedom to talk more about environmental issues. Talk more about things like the nonroad diesel rule, the good things that the administration has done because even though the base doesn't particularly care about the environment, supposedly, they don't have to worry about that so much anymore. Although I was very interested to see, I guess it was two weeks ago, the evangelical movement is beginning to recognize the environment as something of great importance and starting to take actual political stance on the environment.

Darren Samuelsohn: There's been some clamoring, there's been some clamoring on the legacy issue. Will President Bush make a change back on his CO2 ideas, from the presidential campaign? Gregg Easterbrook has written about it. Certainly that would be one heck of a surprise if that happened. Do you think it's possible that there might be a --

Christie Whitman: I don't know whether that will happen. I think there might be a softening, if there was a feeling that you could really get a multi-emission bill through Congress, that the White House might soften, but that doesn't mean you'll get it through because there's real opposition in Congress to a carbon cap. It's not just the White House saying, no way, no how. It is some members of Congress, and pretty influential members of Congress, and not just Republicans. People like to say this is a partisan issue. It depends on where you're from. If you're from a coal state you're going to be very skeptical about a cap on carbon. So it crosses the aisle and I think even were the president to want to have a cap on carbon it would be very problematic. So that it becomes a calculation, is it a bigger issue for you if you put it out there as something grand and new and old and you can't get it done.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Christie Whitman: Than if you just leave it where it is now and try to move forward with a multi-emission bill.

Darren Samuelsohn: Many of the things that you dealt with when you were at EPA are still very much in play today. It's as if you never left.

Christie Whitman: I don't think so.

Darren Samuelsohn: Clear Skies last week was marked up in the Senate and it ran into a 9-9 tie. I can remember back when you testified, when Senator Bob Smith was still there, and you laid out some of the very early ideas of what Clear Skies would be. I think at that point was maybe the first time we ever heard the idea of regulatory relief. Taking away some of the things that are in the existing Clean Air Act and in turn, establishing caps on nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury. The bill ran into this 9-9 tie.

Christie Whitman: Um-hmm. Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: Republicans are saying that Democrats don't want a bill, in your book you say the Democrats and environmentalists never wanted to give Bush a bill. But also you have some moderate senators --

Christie Whitman: Yeah.

Darren Samuelsohn: Carper, Baucus, who think that something is possible. Where is the meeting ground on this and is there meeting ground? Are Democrats being unreasonable to ask for, get rid of this regulatory relief stuff, set some stronger caps and maybe do something on CO2?

Christie Whitman: I don't think they're unreasonable in asking for setting some different caps perhaps, but as far as the regulatory relief, if you look at it, one of the things we said, New Source Review clearly was in need of some reform because you'd never defined what was routine. You don't need it if you've set a 70 percent reduction or 75 or whatever it is. A lot of those regulatory programs you don't need if you have a hard and fast cap because when Congress sets the cap, that's it, that the law. There's no question about it. When the agency does it, it is always subject to lawsuit and takes a long time. While I applaud them for what they've done on the interstate rule, you watch, that's going to be in court and that's going to take awhile to get implemented. Meanwhile we continue to have the same air quality problems as we've had in the past. So there is room for maneuvering here, and I do think there is room to come to some kind of an accommodation. And of course, I've always believed that you could do a cap on carbon, provided you put it far enough out, it was reasonable enough to allow utilities to achieve it without causing a big disruption to their power supply. So that the cost of power didn't go up exorbitantly or so that you didn't suddenly have to start importing more oil or gas or doing a whole lot more exploration. We're going to have to have a mix of things to meet our power demands.

Darren Samuelsohn: I was surprised in reading your book that you were glad that you didn't have to sign the New Source Review reforms --

Christie Whitman: Yup.

Darren Samuelsohn: While you were there. You couldn't say that, obviously, while you were the EPA administrator.

Christie Whitman: No.

Darren Samuelsohn: Why write such a thing?

Christie Whitman: Because that really was the reason, the timing, it wasn't why I left. I really did leave because my husband and I wanted to live together. I mean we do like each other and that's nice. So that was the real reason why I left. The timing was determined by that because I just, I had been working on it for 2-and-a-half years, I felt there was a way to set the numbers for New Source Review reform at a point that did not undermine the existing cases. I knew there was and I felt that was very important. As a governor I had been party to some of those cases and I could not, in good conscience, sign regulations that were so contrary to what I thought was right from the perspective of the cases, not in reforming New Source Review. And the president has a right to set policy where he wants to. He was the one elected. It is his policy and he should have an administrator, or should have had an administrator, who could have signed those regulations comfortably. And so that's why I thought it was time to go.

Darren Samuelsohn: You say in your book that you fought successfully to keep it out of the energy task force report, that these rules would come through EPA and not through the Energy Department.

Christie Whitman: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: And that was --

Christie Whitman: Yeah, initially they'd wanted to send it all over to Energy, and I thought that would really be bad for the environment and for the agency, too. Clearly the New Source Review is the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency. It comes under the Clean Air Act. And so there shouldn't be any question there, and I didn't want to see that undermined.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Christie Whitman: So I was glad we kept it in EPA and then as I say, for 2-and-a-half years we were negotiating on it and pushing back some of the more extreme positions that people wanted to go to. But in the end, I was not comfortable with the levels as they were set and of course now they're in court and the stay has been put on and nothing much has changed.

Darren Samuelsohn: On mercury, another issue that's coming full steam ahead right now. You were quoted in the Los Angeles Times, in March 2004, saying that you were surprised that analysis was not being conducted about the mercury standard in comparing cap-and-trade to a Mercury MACT.

Christie Whitman: Um-hmm.

Darren Samuelsohn: Jeff Holmstead, in countless interviews, has said, one, we didn't have the capability of doing those MACT analysis, we didn't have the time. The explanation from Jeff Holmstead though has been consistently we can't do in analysis on MACT standards, the technology on every single power plant around the country. The GAO came out with a report last week which said that EPA hadn't done the cost benefit analysis. The inspector general said that these numbers were cooked before that it could even go through the rulemaking process. Was the mercury rule, in a whole, just kind of sunk from the beginning in this administration?

Christie Whitman: I don't know where they're going to come out with, what these numbers are going to look like and I think we'll know better when the numbers come out. Mercury has always been problematic. When the agency first ran the Clear Skies numbers there was a presumption of co-benefit that whatever technology you use to reduce your SO2 and nitrogen oxide, you would get, you'd capture a certain amount of mercury, but that was problematic and as they looked further, even before I left, they were starting to revise how much you could actually get though that method without having, without requiring the companies put on specific technology to capture mercury. Of course, mercury is different also in that you can't do the same kind of cap-and-trade with mercury as you can with SO2 and nitrogen oxide because mercury tends to concentrate. It doesn't travel, as you know, the way --

Darren Samuelsohn: Right.

Christie Whitman: The other pollutants do. So you can get hot spots. Now that's not to say you can't design a program that won't allow for that and cover hot spots and prevent them from occurring, but that took a lot more sophistication in the modeling and the development of the regulations. But it is such an important issue and it is such a big issue. I applauded the president for, in Clear Skies, calling for that major reduction in mercury. It was the first time we'd had any standard called for at all. I would hope that the numbers will continue to be numbers that stretch the industry and start to provide the kind of protection that we really need to have for people.

Darren Samuelsohn: One of the, on the issue of mercury, I mean it's one of the things that brought up in criticism of the Bush administration. I'd like to show you now a clip. It's from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who was here on OnPoint a couple of weeks ago. And he's talking about your book, and he says that you didn't swing hard enough at the people in the administration. You talk about the administration, but he says you didn't, you know, you pulled your punches. Let's take a look at this really quick.

Christie Whitman: Sure.

[Clip begins]

Robert F. Kennedy Jr: I don't think she took a stand then and I don't think, you know, I don't think her book takes a stand. I don't think she really takes a hard line stand on these issues. Her book is mainly a series of excuses for the Bush administration. You know, and she picks out a couple of people that she doesn't like, like Dick Cheney or Karl Rove, and gives them a couple of, you know, shots, but by and large it's an apologia for these catastrophic policies that she supported. Including, ultimately, the abandonment of the Kyoto agreement and the rejection of regulation of carbon dioxide, which she promised the American people, and Bush promised the American people, he was gonna do.

[Clip ends]

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's get your reaction to Bobby Kennedy.

Christie Whitman: I'm not terribly surprised to hear him say that. Bobby has a tendency to go for the jugular which is what he likes, which is fine. I mean, you know, that's his methodology. First of all, as I said earlier on, this book isn't about this administration. This was never intended to be a tell-all or anything like that. This is about the future. It's about the future of politics in our country today and it is precisely some of the extreme kind of language that Bobby's so comfortable in using. And I spent three days with him on the Salmon River last summer talking about environmental issues and it was, you know, we had a challenging time of it. We agreed there was an environment. It was a good thing. Beyond that it was kind of tough to find places where we thought we should move forward, although we did find them. The point here and the point of the book is I use some of those examples not to point fingers and not to call names. That's too easy to do. That's a cop-out in my mind. That's what you do when you're not serious about trying to solve the problem. What I was doing is using those examples of where we, as the American people, lose because of things being totally designed or focused on a political outcome or that because of the political extremes making it so difficult to come together to get good policymaking decisions and to get good policy discussion going. I mean, say what you will about the president's energy bill, and Lord knows there's been a lot of backing and forthing about that, we haven't had an energy policy in decades in this country. We need one and we haven't even gotten a discussion going.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's stay on your book for a second --

Christie Whitman: Sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: And I want to ask you, you talk about campaigning with moderates, Republicans, campaigning with moderates and then you say, at one point, you tried to get some of those, actually you were campaigning for conservatives --

Christie Whitman: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: You were trying to get some of those conservatives to campaign with you and a couple of them didn't come out with you, I guess you were talking about your New Jersey governor runs?

Christie Whitman: Right, the election.

Darren Samuelsohn: President Bush went out with Arnold Schwarzenegger and he went out with George Pataki on occasion. Does President Bush owe John McCain, for example, something on global warming by having McCain come out and offer sort of his perspective on the campaign trail, maybe helping him, you know, appear as a moderate? Does he owe him something on something like global warming?

Christie Whitman: Well I presume that John McCain didn't go do it because he was being offered anything in particular. It's because he felt that George Bush was the person he was going to support for presidency for some other reasons. Now, does he owe him anything? You don't go into those things thinking about the IOUs. You do it for those other reasons and certainly John McCain has a place at the table and he's an ear that they're going to listen to. I don't know that policy to be just decided around that. Certainly something like climate change is such a big issue and subject to so many variables that you're not going to make a guarantee that because he was there during the campaign that that's what he's going to "get." I don't think there was that kind of quid pro quo, other than at least the ability to get in the door and have the discussion.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Let's quickly just kind of touch on your future, 2006, you said you considered running for the United States Senate in 2000, the seat that Jon Corzine had. He's not running for the Senate in 2006. He's running for --

Christie Whitman: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: Your old position in the governorship.

Christie Whitman: Yes, he is.

Darren Samuelsohn: Are you interested in a Senate run?

Christie Whitman: No. I'm not running for anything which is why I could write the book and say what I did say in it because I'm not in office and I don't intend to be in office. So there are a lot of people who currently hold political office who feel the way I do, but really can't say it because they have political careers in front of them. That's why I was, I'm free to be able to do it, to promote the Web site, which is www.mypartytoo.com, as a place for moderates to go and to find reinforcement, to identify moderates to support, other moderate candidates to support and try to start a movement that will bring my party back to where, I think, it's traditionally and historically been, more toward the center, accepting everybody, all the far left, the far right, conservatives, moderate, liberal, we all have a place.

Darren Samuelsohn: Condie Rice took her name out of a 2008 presidential campaign a couple of days ago. Are you also taking yourself out of running for president in 2008?

Christie Whitman: Yes, I'm not running.

Darren Samuelsohn: You're not running for president?

Christie Whitman: No.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Well, I hope we see you again Ms. Whitman, thanks very much for being here.

Christie Whitman: My pleasure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Thank you very much for tuning into OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. See you again soon.

[End of Audio]



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