It was billed as a review of Anne M. Gorsuch's first year as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. But the unusual hearing by four House subcommittees quickly dissolved into a verbal tug of war between hostile Democrats on one side and Gorsuch and Republicans on the other.
Gorsuch, reinforced by about a dozen of her top aides, faced more than 20 members of Congress, a standing-room-only crowd, several cameras and more than three hours of Democrats' hostile questions, interspersed with lobs from friendly Republicans.
The stage for the hearings was set by weeks of sparring between the Democrats and Republicans and the EPA. "We knew it was a setup, a no-win situation," said an EPA official about Gorsuch's being asked to participate.
Scheduling Gorsuch's appearance required eight letters over five weeks between the EPA and the Democratic members. At one point the Democrats insisted that Gorsuch submit her calendar so that they could check her claims that she was already booked on the days they wanted her to appear. Gorsuch's aides said they obeyed the order, even though they thought it was unnecessary.
While subcommittee staff normally are available to brief members of Congress from both parties for hearings, the Democrats hid most of their staff investigation and research from the Republicans, refusing to release even the witness list until the last minute. The Republicans, in turn, met privately with EPA officials, who fed them sympathetic questions and backup material.
Republicans defended their collaboration, charging that the Democrats were using the hearings not as a fact-finding forum but to make the Reagan administration look bad as the November elections approach.
"This was set up as a blatant political circus," said Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa). "This is merely an attempt to gain a partisan political advantage."
Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) countered that the Republicans had complained about the procedures because they knew that the criticisms of the Reagan EPA were valid. "Among attorneys in Tennessee the saying is: when you have the facts on your side, argue the facts," he said. "When you have the law on your side, argue the law. When you have neither, holler."
One Democrat, Phil Gramm of Texas, did defend EPA policies, saying they were more balanced than were the policies of the EPA under President Carter. He also joked that Gorsuch's bright purple outfit "stunned" the television audience, prompting Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) to accuse him of being "condescending." Gramm replied, "Something must be wrong with your eyes," as Gorsuch smiled uncomfortably.
Gorsuch repeatedly defended the agency's record, insisting that most criticism was sparked by resistance to change. Gorsuch said the policies initiated by the Reagan administration would provide more protection of the environment, not less.
Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) replied, "There is a Kafka-like difference in the two worlds: your testimony and the world as we know it." He noted that the EPA's science advisory board had criticized the agency's research and development plans sharply, and that the agency still has only an acting assistant administrator for research and development.
Gorsuch responded that the acting assistant administrator, Courtney Riordan, is quite capable, leading Scheuer to urge Gorsuch to send his name to the Senate as a nominee for the post so his qualifications could be reviewed.
Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) sharply criticized Gorsuch for meeting with representatives of Thriftway, a New Mexico refinery, and promising not to enforce lead regulations. Gorsuch said she had done nothing improper.
Moffett then produced a letter to the editor of The Atlanta Journal. The letter was written by Byron Nelson, director of the agency's office of public affairs. In it, Nelson said a law firm chosen by Moffett had evaluated a report by the EPA inspector general and concluded that Gorsuch was innocent of any wrongdoing, conflict of interest or even an appearance of impropriety.
Then Moffett showed a June 4 letter to Gorsuch from EPA Inspector General Matthew Novick in which Novick wrote, "The facts contained in Nelson's letter are absolutely false."
Moffett said that the legal review was a hypothetical analysis done before the IG report was completed, that he had not chosen the firm and that the IG report had reached no conclusions. Gorsuch acknowledged that the letter was inaccurate, but said no attempt had been made to correct it.
Democrats also spent a considerable amount of time criticizing the agency's enforcement record, which Gorsuch said is improving and will lead to more effective action against violators.
Democrats then produced a June 23 memo, from Leland Modesitt Jr., director of the office of legislation, to Robert M. Perry, associate administrator for legal and enforcement counsel. Modesitt wrote that possible issues that might arise at the congressional hearings included "The past and projected future cutbacks in enforcement attorneys at a time when the enforcement record is at its worst in a decade."
Gorsuch replied, "Obviously, it was asked as a devil's advocate, as a question that Mr. Perry could expect from the subcommittee."