Browner Dons Gloves for EPA Environmental Protection Chief Battles Republican-Led Effort to Shrink Agency

Article excerpt

CAROL BROWNER, administrator of the embattled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has had no illusions about the forces she's confronting.

GOP critics have vilified the EPA as the "Gestapo of government" and a "job-killing agency" - this for a department that a year ago was slated to join the Cabinet.

But when the Republican-ruled House voted last week to slash Ms. Browner's $7.2 billion budget by one-third and take 18 specific steps to curb or eliminate its enforcement powers, she became alarmed over "the concerted, orchestrated assault on how we do our job."

The House proposals are the biggest challenge to government as guardian of environmental protection and safety since federal authorities first assumed the role 25 years ago.

Browner has picked up the GOP gauntlet, giving media interviews and lobbying hard in the Senate to save her agency. She takes some comfort in President Clinton's vow to use his veto power "the minute this polluters' protection act hits my desk." Some Republican senators are also concerned that the House has gone too far. But Browner claims she has been shut out of the congressional debate.

Her repeated efforts to meet with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia have failed. "There's no genuine willingness on the part of the leadership and its following to have an honest debate, because they are beholden to special interests. It is lobbying at its most successful, its most triumphant," she says.

At her threadbare suite of offices in the nondescript EPA headquarters in Washington, Browner acknowledges that the EPA, for many lawmakers, epitomizes federal intrusion into business. The agency's 18,600 employees are charged with enforcing regulations ranging from drinking-water quality to nuclear-waste cleanup to pollution-control devices on cars.

The House Republicans' move to pare down the EPA is the clearest repudiation of big government - proposed EPA budget cuts are the biggest for any targeted federal agency. Republicans and business groups say it is time to redress the balance between economic and environmental interests. But Browner argues that the cuts are being pushed by one of the most effective special-interest campaigns in the 104th Congress.

AMERICAN businesses are sparing no expense in trying to get regulatory relief from their burdensome compliance costs. They spend millions of dollars each year to meet EPA regulations, a sum they say is steadily climbing and puts them at a disadvantage in competing with largely unregulated foreign firms.

In recent weeks, the halls of the Capitol have been packed with lobbyists from the nation's most powerful oil and gas companies, chemicals manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms, real estate developers, and others who recognize a chance to cut their costs by attacking the EPA bureaucracy.

"This is not about reform, this is about shutting the system down," asserts Browner.

Her comments are punctuated by stark warnings to the American public. If the House bill comes to pass, she says, beachgoers enjoying the ocean surf, and those fishing and boating in the country's thousands of rivers and lakes, will see more raw sewage, chemical discharge, and medical waste contaminating their waters. The 2,279 beach closings EPA recorded last year will multiply in years to come, she predicts.

But business leaders reject the Clinton administration's contention that the reformers seek a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach, damaging to the environment.

"Our basic view is not to abolish the agency but to require it to develop a better system of benefit-cost analysis," says John Snow, chief executive of CSX Corporation and chairman of the Business Roundtable, the nation's premier advocacy group for business. "The best-case scenario is that a reformed, rational EPA use good science and apply market principles to its regulations," he says. …