The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday issued a scathing assessment of President Bush's decision to challenge scores of new environmental and health regulations, saying that officials showed "a predetermined hostility" toward many of the regulations promulgated in the closing months of the Clinton administration.
Within hours of Bush taking office on Jan. 20, 2001, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. signed a directive to all federal agencies ordering an immediate 60-day freeze of all pending regulations. Those measures included an Agriculture Department rule barring most new logging and road construction on nearly 60 million acres of national forests; tough new Interior Department regulations on hard rock mining on public lands; and an Environmental Protection Agency regulation to lower the permissible levels of arsenic in drinking water.
The 90-page report prepared by the committee's Democratic majority staff concluded that Card's memo was of "questionable legality" and gave "an early warning of the administration's lack of respect for the process of developing regulations." The administration subsequently sidetracked the new logging and hard rock mining regulations but allowed the more stringent arsenic standard to take effect.
"It was wrong for the administration to second-guess these final rules," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the committee. "It was wrong to discount a well-established scientific record. And it was wrong for the administration to use stealth tactics to achieve its ideologically driven ends."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed the report as a political assault timed for release two weeks before the Nov. 5 election. "Like the president, Americans across the political spectrum recognize that we can find common ground to safeguard our environment while sustaining economic growth and job creation," he said.
"That's what the president has worked to do," McClellan added, "whether it's significantly reducing the level of arsenic in drinking water or working to reduce power plant emissions or restoring abandoned industrial sites or protecting our lands."
Citing documents and e-mail gathered as part of the review, the committee report asserted that the administration repeatedly allowed political considerations to override the professional judgment of agency officials or other sound scientific considerations.
The report noted, for example, that some career EPA staff "expressed surprise and unhappiness" with the push by the White House Budget Office to soften the arsenic rule, when at least one official thought an even more stringent standard was warranted.
The report concluded that the decision to suspend the hard rock mining rule "was not based on documented substantive analysis," and the ultimate decision to rescind parts of the rule allowed mining projects to continue that pose a serious threat to the environment and public health.