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Californians Shape Up as Force on Environmental Policy

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008

California Democrats will assume pivotal roles in the new Congress and White House, giving the state an outsize influence over federal policy and increasing the likelihood that its culture of activist regulation will be imported to Washington.

In Congress, Democrats from the Golden State are in key positions to write laws to mitigate global warming, promote "green" industries and alternative energy, and crack down on toxic chemicals. Down Pennsylvania Avenue, Californians in the new White House will shape environmental, energy and workplace safety policies.

"It's unique in terms of the power of this state in modern times," said James A. Thurber, who directs the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. To find another example of a state wielding such national influence, Thurber had to reach back to Texas in the 1950s, when Sam Rayburn was the House speaker and Lyndon B. Johnson was the Senate majority leader.

The current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is the most prominent member of the California delegation. As leader of a sometimes fractious caucus, Pelosi has had to find common ground between conservative and liberal Democrats. But she has been firm about her intention to bring the kind of climate-change legislation embraced by California to the national level, and she was quietly supportive when a California colleague, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, pushed out Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In a November caucus election, Waxman narrowly beat Dingell, who held the chair for 16 years and was seen by critics as too protective of the auto industry. Waxman, who has crafted an image as a champion of consumers, taxpayers and the environment, takes over next month. Energy and Commerce handles more than half of the legislation that flows through Congress. Its sprawling portfolio includes climate change, air quality and health matters -- issues that have consumed policymakers in California.

Waxman's counterpart in the Senate is Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee. "California has always valued protecting the environment and health and safety of our people," Boxer said in a telephone interview. "The people from California who are coming here to work on this and Congressman Waxman and myself, we are very strong on this."

Obama has chosen Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to be energy secretary, and he tapped Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley to run the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. Obama also selected Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a Democrat from Los Angeles, to become labor secretary, charged with enforcing workplace safety laws, among other duties. And Christina D. Romer, a University of California at Berkeley economist, will chair the Council of Economic Advisers.

One longtime Capitol Hill observer cautioned that although these Californians are in key positions to shape federal policy, they don't necessarily share a single California philosophy. Still, they have been shaped by experience in a state that has led the nation in regulatory policy.

Since the 1970s, when it became the first state in the country to set its own auto emissions standards under the federal Clean Air Act, California has been considered a trendsetter.

When the state tried last year to set tougher emissions standards that would cut tailpipe emissions by 30 percent by 2016, 12 other states followed suit. The Bush administration denied the states, which are hoping the Obama administration or the new Congress will reverse that decision.

After the state banned a class of chemicals, phthalates, from children's products last year, 12 states introduced similar bans.

This month, California regulators took the initial steps toward the nation's first comprehensive plan to curb greenhouse gases. The strategy creates a system of trading pollution permits and cutting emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Details of the plan are still under development. The next day, state regulators approved the most stringent rules in the country governing emissions from diesel trucks and buses.

The California ban on phthalates inspired Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to successfully push for a federal prohibition, which takes effect in February. It is a rarity -- the first time Congress has banned a chemical in decades -- and it faced stiff and well-financed opposition from Exxon Mobil, which makes one of the banned chemicals.

Even though Feinstein was not on the conference committee that resolved differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation, she worked behind the scenes to make sure the phthalates ban stayed in the final version, said Janet Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Fund, which pushed the bill.

"She made it clear that phthalates wasn't 'trade bait' between negotiators," Nudelman said. "The phthalates ban was an example of Feinstein, Boxer and Waxman literally reaching across houses to strategize and secure passage of a very controversial piece of legislation that no one thought had a chance of passing."

Boxer said the public should not expect a flood of new legislation modeled on California statutes, but rather a renewed effort to enforce existing consumer protection and workplace safety rules and environmental laws.

"It's not a question of passing new landmark laws," Boxer said. "It's a matter of getting these agencies back in gear. We have great tools, but they have not been functioning. For the past eight years, they've been sitting idle. The Californians coming, they don't have to rewrite the laws. They just have to enforce them. It's like the EPA has been asleep for eight years. The Californians are coming to wake the sleeping beauty."

Still, there will be revisions to existing laws and some new bills. Environmentalists and industry expect Waxman, Boxer, Pelosi, Sutley and the others to take on the oil and gas companies.

Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the Californians are pragmatic and mindful of overreaching. "All these folks really want to make policy change," she said. "On the other hand, they very, very much want to stay in power." The most ambitious effort is likely to be a cap-and-trade bill that will sell emissions permits to industry with the aim of reducing carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Boxer introduced a version that died after debate in June. She intends to introduce a revised version in the new Congress, probably in concert with Waxman, who had written his own climate-change bill in the last session.

Waxman and Boxer joined Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in sponsoring the Kids Safe Chemicals Act in the last Congress and plan to reintroduce it in the new year. The legislation seeks to reform chemical policy to require industry to prove chemicals are safe before they are used in commerce. Currently, the government must prove that a chemical is unsafe before it can be pulled from the market. The Lautenberg bill would put the burden on industry to prove a chemical's safety. The bill is modeled after a law in Europe but follows the same approach as a "green chemistry" law passed by California earlier this year.

Roger Martella, a former EPA general counsel who is an attorney for many corporations affected by environmental regulation, calls Waxman, Pelosi and Boxer a "trifecta" that could craft significant new government action.

"Whether at the end of the day every policy that California has gets implemented on a national level is a matter for debate," Martella said. "At the same time, we'd be foolish to ignore those stars are lining up."

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