THE HOUSE-passed bill to raise the Environmental Protection Agency to a Cabinet-level department is bogged down in the Senate. The proposal, which the president made in January, was always partly a gesture. But by giving the agency with the job of protecting the environment greater status, it has the potential to confer some limited substantive benefits as well, and the Senate ought to try to pass it.
The principal problems all involve not quite turf in the classic sense but efforts to use the table of organization to achieve or defeat certain policy results. Such efforts are usually in vain, and in their contortions -- whether to set an agency up in a certain way or foil such a setup -- often do more harm than good.
Here the main dispute involves a proposed bureau of environmental statistics. The bills in both houses -- the Senate bill awaits committee action -- seek to make the bureau somewhat independent; the Bureau of Labor Statistics is one model. The head of the environmental bureau, for example, would be subject to Senate confirmation for a fixed term and could be removed only for cause. Proponents say the independence is necessary to keep an administration from tilting the facts to suit its preferences, as the Bush administration was accused of having done with the threat of global warming earlier this year. The administration says the purpose is instead to create a redoubt for a point of view. In fact there is no way to institutionalize a contrary voice within a determined administration, and an agency becomes authoritative over time by performance, not by legislative artifice.
Other disputes that have arisen with this bill strike us as equally academic. They involve such things as the likely relationships between the proposed environmental department and the existing departments of Energy and Commerce, or between it and the Council on Environmental Quality, a small but, as in the Carter years, potentially powerful White House office. The answer in every case is that these relationships will depend much more on who is president, how strong the Cabinet appointees are and what their president wants than on any institutional arrangements that Congress can create in the abstract. The Senate bill, despairing of settling some of these issues, would instead create a commission to study them, and even that has become a point to be fought over.
The world won't end if this bill fails, and Congress has more important things to do in the few weeks it will have left before it adjourns. But it would nonetheless be useful if, while they're doing all the rest, the various sides could work this bill out. The issues shouldn't be that hard.