Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Messenger from the White House Council on Environmental Quality. (Spheres of Influence)

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Messenger from the White House Council on Environmental Quality. (Spheres of Influence)

Article excerpt

During the last several decades, the environmental priorities of the various administrations occupying the White House have varied. But the statuatory basis underlying the White House's role in environmental policy has not. By law, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is charged with ensuring a safe, healthy environment for all Americans. But as controversy over the Bush environmental agenda heats up, stakeholders increasingly accuse the CEQ of losing touch with its own mandate.

The greening of the federal government arguably dates back to 1969. That year, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to ensure that environmental concerns would be considered in all federal agency decisions in any way related to resource management. Oversight of this expansive mission was assigned by NEPA to the newly formed CEQ, which was to reside within the Executive Office of the President. With a staff of nearly 80, the fledgling CEQ leaped into the 1970s, a decade that would prove to be a time of profound environmental progress.

During this time, the CEQ worked to ensure that environmental values, as articulated by NEPA, reached far into the federal administrative machinery. Its annual reports--which absorbed up to a third of staff resources--were highly influential guides for legislators working in the environmental policy arena. Jim McElfish, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C., says the reports established a much-needed baseline evaluation of the status of the nation's environment. "The reports identified environmental issues and trends that deserved concern not only from CEQ but also agencies from across the federal government," he says.

The Global 2000 Report to the President, the annual report released by the CEQ in 1980, remains the most widely distributed document ever produced by the federal government--more than 1.5 million copies are in print, and the report has been translated into eight languages. William Reilly, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under George Herbert Walker Bush, has described the Global 2000 Report as "a classic achievement of a White House council charged with taking the long view and looking beyond the turf of any one agency.

With CEQ oversight, a regulatory infrastructure began to take shape after NEPA. Congress formed the U.S. EPA and passed important legislation underlying our current system of environmental laws. "The CEQ played a crucial role in what is today the fabric and network of environmental protection," says Linde Fisher, deputy administrator of the EPA.

Under NEPA, the CEQ is charged with upholding a core set of environmental principles designed to protect public and ecological health. Consistent with this task, the CEQ's mission is, among other procedural duties, to study the environment and advise the President on optimal policies for its protection. Environmental stakeholders believe this mission is independent of the administration in power. But the CEQ itself is fluid, explains its general counsel, Dinah Bear. "The CEQ reflects available resources and the priorities of the [council] chairman and the President," she says. "So there is no set organizational charter that works for more than a short period of time."

A Variable Influence on Policy

In recent years, disagreements have arisen over the CEQ's changing role in the environmental policy arena. CEQ staff, who represent the administration, see themselves as playing a key role in advancing a worthy environmental agenda. But a number of stakeholders also believe the CEQ has lost its own voice as it has passed through one administration to the next.

"CEQ's influence is based on access to the President, which is itself dependent on personality," explains David Rejeski, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, an independent research group in Washington, D. …

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