Here's why: Since EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson's departure in late January, deputy administrator Bob Perciasepe has been serving as the agency's acting administrator. And there's no time limit on how long he can serve.
The law that established the EPA in 1970 allows that "the Deputy Administrator shall perform such functions as the Administrator shall from time to time assign or delegate, and shall act as Administrator during the absence or disability of the Administrator or in the event of a vacancy in the office of Administrator." That means that Perciasepe can stay on as long as the McCarthy nomination is held up by Republicans.
Perciasepe headed both the agency's water pollution and air quality offices under President Clinton. He's not beloved by Republicans, who have questioned his use of a personal e-mail account to send an e-mail about hydraulic fracturing.
"Senate Republicans may be stepping on their own big feet by blocking McCarthy’s appointment," said Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "EPA’s acting boss, Bob Perciasepe, is no less a skilled professional manager than McCarthy. In fact, some believe McCarthy is actually more willing to compromise with industry."
O'Donnell noted that while McCarthy has worked for Republican governors in Connecticut and Massachusetts before coming to Washington, "Perciasepe is a true-blue Democrat. He’s contributed presidential campaign money in the past not only to Obama in 2008 but to Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004."
At the moment, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has a hold on McCarthy's nomination because the EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers have not yet agreed on how to proceed with an environmental review of a plan to plug a quarter-mile gap in an enormous levee along the Mississippi River and install two pumping stations. The $165 million project -- which has faced multiple lawsuits and undergone more than half a dozen environmental reviews over the past several decades -- would help control flooding in southeastern Missouri but would require draining as much as 55,000 acres of wetlands that provide backwater habitat for fish and waterfowl.
A spokesman for Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote in an e-mail that his boss is comfortable with the idea of Perciasepe in charge. McCarthy has received more than 1,100 questions from the Environment and Public Works Committee, all but 25 of which came from Republicans. Vitter posed 600 of them, according to the panel's majority office.
"Sen. Vitter is still waiting for full responses from Gina McCarthy on the Committee Republicans’ five transparency requests," wrote Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar. "Until the EPA is ready to be responsive, Bob Perciasepe is capable of running the show. The EPA won’t stop operating or stop issuing new regulations simply because Perciasepe rather than Gina McCarthy is holding the position."
The White House declined to comment on the matter.
Both the White House and environmentalists are still pushing to confirm McCarthy, who currently serves as head of EPA's air and radiation office. In mid-May the Environmental Defense Action Fund launched a television ad campaign on McCarthy's behalf in nine media markets, and it just extended the buy for another three weeks.
"We think her expertise, her support from both industry and environmentalists, and her bipartisan credentials make her a great fit for the job," said EDAF president Elizabeth Thompson in a statement. "We know everything becomes a fight in Washington, but we’re very hopeful that her outstanding qualifications mean the Senate will approve her nomination and let her get to work.”
In the meantime, Jackson has already found another job. As the Post reported Tuesday, Jackson has joined Apple as its vice president for environmental initiatives, overseeing issues ranging from the company's energy use to the efficiency of its products.