A. Alan Hill, the Reagan administration's choice to head the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), seems a bit like a hospital patient attempting the first, small steps after surgery.
The surgery actually was performed on the council, whose budget may be slashed from the $4 million proposed by the Carter administration to $1.04 million offered by President Reagan in his new 1982 fiscal year budget.
The CEQ "is lucky to be alive," says Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, noting that some Reagan aides want to eliminate the council because they consider it unnecessary.
Hill, whose confirmation hearing is scheduled today before Stafford's committee, is not trying to make the agency any more controversial than it already is within the administration -- and so far his nomination has proceeded almost unnoticed. No outside witnesses are expected to testify for or against Hill at today's hearing, and committee members have no strong feelings either way, says James Davenport, a committee aide. "He seems to accommodate the concerns of those he speaks with."
Hill says his overriding loyalty is to the Reagan administration rather than the environmental movement. Teamwork and consensus-building among policy makers are the watchwords, says Hill, a businessman who learned that lesson during six years in the agricultural, conservation and resource management departments of Reagan's state administration in California. (He has run his own plumbing fixtures company since then, and has had little to do with environmental issues (since the early 1970s.)
When Hill recalls his experience as a regulator in state government, he isn't talking about court fights and advocacy. Instead, he looks back at the regular private, informal meetings he and other officials had to discuss environmental issues.
"We solved a tremendous number of problems that way, and we're going to be starting that here," he said in an interview.
"My principal role will be as a communicator from the outside world in, and from the administration out," he said. He will try to see that policy makers consider environmental problems and look for policy "alternatives that have less of an impact," he said.
How much impact Hill and the skeleton crew at CEQ will have is questionable.
Important, controversial decisions on environmental policy already have been made without a word from Hill or the CEQ, and the opposition at the Reagan White House to the web of environmental regulation has been stated clearly.
The budget decisions, which cut the CEQ stafffrom 32 full-time and 17 part-time positions to a total of 16, leave the CEQ severely strapped in meeting its statutory requirements.
Hill said the council "doesn't have the resources" to continue publishing the widely distributed comprehensive environmental review that for years provided the public, government, the press, academics and interest groups with a yardstick of environmental progress.
"What we've done is ask for help from the other agencies," said Hill. Instead of verifying the data from governmental agencies and applying its own judgments on major environmental issues, Hill indicated that the CEQ staff essentially will assemble reports from throughout the government, limiting its analysis to the state of the environment in this country and a few significant global environmental issues. "We're going to do the best we can," he said.
This attitude would also apply to the CEQ's chief responsibility: reviewing the government's compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires the government to prepare environmental impact statements on major federal projects.
Hill says his initial impression is that his predecessors made significant improvements in the impact-statement process. "All I've been hearing is good things," he said. Nevertheless, there is a "widespread view that the process delays projects and makes them more expensive . . . .My concern is that we do everything possible to see that the act and the environmental statements move as efficiently as possible.
"What we are doing is to focus on the major issues" and prevent delays in the review policy, he said. "I forsee a time that, if we don't, we will have a series of categorical exemptions slapped on by the Hill."