Time for the Senate to Vote on EPA’s Gina McCarthy

On March 4, 2013, President Obama nominated Gina McCarthy to be the next Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Gina McCarthy, the President's nominee to lead the EPA

Gina McCarthy, the President’s nominee to lead the EPA

I remember that day well. The day before had been the 150th anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences, and I had celebrated the event by featuring one of their authoritative pieces on climate science. Ms. McCarthy’s nomination the following day was another reason for celebration: a widely acclaimed environmental leader with a strong record of fairness, and public support from across the spectrum. I felt sure that prompt Senate action would give our country some excellent environmental oversight.

That was 100 days ago. Whatever has happened to Gina McCarthy?

Sadly, Ms. McCarthy has been imprisoned in “confirmation purgatory” ever since. Perhaps that’s where you send unqualified, extremist, offensive or ineffective nominees. But why her? This outstanding public servant who gave us so many reasons for hope and optimism? Here are a few of her many accomplishments:

  • She has a strong record of cutting air pollution for Republican governors: McCarthy worked under governors Mitt Romney (MA) and Jodi Rell (CT). In Massachusetts, she helped cut both carbon and mercury pollution from the state’s five dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Romney also had her develop Massachusetts’s first climate protection action plan. When McCarthy left to head Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection, she helped Connecticut become one of the first ten states to participate in a regional plan to reduce carbon pollution. This program has already reduced carbon pollution by the equivalent of removing 2 million cars from the road for a year.
  • She is saving drivers money with cleaner, more efficient vehicles: As Assistant Administrator at the EPA, McCarthy led efforts to establish the first limits on carbon pollution from vehicles. Over the life of the program cars will emit 6 billion fewer metric tons of carbon pollution. The modern fuel economy standards that accompany the carbon pollution standards will double the distance the average car and truck can travel on a gallon of gasoline. This will save the average driver $8,000 in less gasoline purchased over the life of a 2025 model car.
  • She is reducing pollution from new power plants: McCarthy helped craft the proposed New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) that would require reductions in carbon pollution from new power plants, incorporating input from all stakeholders. The rule would reduce carbon pollution that is accelerating climate change and increasing smog and other hazards. An EPA analysis stated that the agency “does not anticipate this rule will have any impacts on the price of electricity, employment or labor markets, or the US economy.” The proposal would, however, reduce negative health effects and spur investment in clean technologies. While drafting the standards, the EPA received 3.2 million comments in favor of the NSPS standards.
  • She is protecting children from mercury while cutting health care costs: McCarthy led efforts to develop and finalize safeguards to protect children, pregnant women, seniors, and those with respiratory ailments from mercury and toxic air pollution from power plants. Power plants are the largest source of domestic mercury pollution — a known neurotoxin that impairs brain development in the unborn and small children. McCarthy testified before Congress that the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards will provide up to $90 billion in health benefits every year, or up to $9 for every $1 in clean-up costs. And I testified before the EPA why evangelical Christian convictions led me to support McCarthy’s efforts.

That’s a pretty decent list of accomplishments for any public servant. But to do it with bipartisan and industry support in today’s toxic political environment is remarkable indeed. Consider:

  • The Republican former Governor of Connecticut said of McCarthy: “Her leadership on climate issues is nationally respected,” and called her “a dedicated public servant with tremendous talent and passion.”
  • The top environmental executive at coal-consuming American Electric Power praised her fairness: “Early on, Gina brought us in to talk about the rules. We talked about timing, technology, and cost. My sense is that Gina is listening, has an open mind; she wants to hear the concerns of the regulated sector.”
  • The Republican Reverend Mitch Hescox, head of Evangelical Environmental Network, recently endorsed McCarthy, saying: “She has excellent qualifications, has the record of listening to all sides, and even has the support of many in industry. I consider her a ‘good cop’ in protecting the health of our children.”
  • Southern Company, an enormous coal-burning public utility, supports McCarthy. CEO Tom Fanning said: “I think she’s a great pick. I’ve already chatted with her, and I look forward to the years ahead with her.”
  • Even Republican Senator James Inhofe (who famously brands climate change “a massive hoax”) embraced McCarthy’s 2009 nomination as Assistant EPA Administrator. “I supported Regina McCarthy’s nomination today,” wrote Inhofe, “because I think she possesses the knowledge, experience, and temperament to oversee a very important office at EPA.” His counterpart in the House, Republican John Shimkus, praised McCarthy for her flexibility in enforcing a smog rule in 2011. “She was helpful in allowing [an Illinois power plant] project,” he said. “It showed me, personally, some willingness to understand capital investment and assumption of risk.”

So what could have happened to McCarthy’s confirmation to head the EPA? Some politicians, it would seem, will stymie even the most praiseworthy nominee, if it might derail enforcement of America’s clean air and water laws. It started with the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, which was charged with reviewing the nomination. Led by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), committee Republicans issued 1,079 written questions for McCarthy to respond to. That’s almost quadruple the prior record number of questions to an EPA nominee.

Sen. Vitter alone asked 411 questions, with 242 sub-parts. And even though she answered them all (123 pages worth to Vitter alone), he called her “unresponsive.”

Despite the deluge of questions, the EPW Committee finally set May 9 as the date to vote on the nomination. But the Republican committee members all boycotted the meeting, depriving the committee of a quorum, so no vote could be taken. In the storm of public criticism that followed, the EPW Committee rescheduled the meeting for a week later, and McCarthy finally got her committee vote.

On to the Senate floor for debate and a final vote, one would hope? Sadly, we’ve had no such luck. The Senate has a rule permitting any senator to place a “procedural hold” on any legislation. The rule was put in place out of respect for a senator who might feel blindsided by proposed legislation, without the chance to become familiar with the issues at stake. Notwithstanding 1,079 questions asked and answered, and despite the EPW Committee’s decision to send McCarthy’s nomination to the Senate floor for a vote, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) placed a procedural hold on McCarthy’s nomination. So there she sits – languishing in confirmation purgatory.

So what’s next for McCarthy? I would echo Rev. Hescox’s plea to his fellow Republicans in the Senate.

“If a Senator – Democrat or Republican – wishes to vote no on Ms. McCarthy’s nomination, that’s their right,” said Hescox. “But cast a vote, and live by our American democracy and way of life…. If Congress doesn’t like the Clean Air or the Clean Water Act that protects our children’s lives and health, then change the law – that’s part of their job. Just don’t play games with the ‘top cop’ for environmental health whose job is to enforce what Congress already passed.”

After 100 days, I think it’s time. Senators, up or down, vote on Gina McCarthy’s nomination to head the EPA. This dedicated public servant – not to mention your country – deserves better than this endless gridlock.

J. Elwood


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