Former president William Jefferson Clinton will return to Washington on Wednesday, for a celebration of his environmental legacy as the federal government renames the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in his honor.
While several former presidents have federal buildings named after them--including Lyndon B. Johnson, George H. W. Bush and Theodore Roosevelt--it's always worth examining whether the politician in question deserves such an accolade. In the case of Clinton, it's clear he's a natural fit for EPA. Love it or hate it, he enacted some of the most sweeping environmental protections in U.S. history.
Clinton, along with then-EPA administrator Carol Browner and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, pushed through an ambitious environmental agenda with included both bipartisan measures and controversial initiatives that infuriated Republicans. Sometimes the decisions had an air of political calculation, like when Clinton declared Utah's Grande Escalante a national monument shortly before the 1996 election at the suggestion of his pollster Dick Morris. Other times the initiatives represented a clear consensus, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996. Clinton has also continued to press the case for renewable energy and other environmental causes since leaving office, from his perch as head of the William J. Clinton Foundation.
Here are a few of Clinton's environmental accomplishments during his two terms in office:
- The federal government cleaned up 600 contaminated Superfund sites, three times as many sites as had been restored in the previous 12 years
- Clinton protected more than 4 million acres of public land in the form of national parks, monuments and wilderness
- The U.S. Forest Service enacted the so-called "roadless rule" which put nearly a third of the national forests -- roughly 60 million acres -- off-limits to most development.
- Clinton created the Office of Children’s Health with EPA, to focus specifically on the environment impacts different activities have on the nation's most-vulnerable population.
Despite this, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) had to do plenty of heavy lifting to make the naming happen. EPA headquarters already had a name--the Ariel Rios Building, in honor of an undercover Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who was slain in the line of duty three decades ago at the age of 28. The building used to house ATF, but now that ATF has its own building, Rios' family supported the idea of naming a reflecting pool after the agent instead.
"It is the wish of the Rios family that the Ariel Rios name come home to ATF headquarters," the agency said in a statement Tuesday.
Still, according to a Boxer aide, the senator knew she needed to muster bipartisan support for naming EPA's building after Clinton. So after a period of negotiation, Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed that they would rename a federal courthouse in Midland, Tex., after both Bush presidents, and would name a long-vacant Capitol Hill building undergoing renovation after the longest-serving House Speaker in history, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill." (While this marked a first for George W. Bush, O'Neill already had a federal government center in Boston named after him, and the Central Intelligence Agency named its Langley, Va. headquarters the George Bush Center for Intelligence 15 years ago.)
The compromise legislation passed both the House and Senate by unanimous consent late last year, and was signed into law shortly afterward by President Obama. Just last week the George Mahon Federal Building United States Courthouse, which was named after a former Democratic congressman, became the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush United States Courthouse and George Mahon Federal Building.
So really, everybody wins.