EDITORIAL: Gina McCarthy’s smog machine

EPA nominee blows off the senators’ confirmation questions

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Senate hearings, even confirmation hearings, don’t always live up to their billing (except in the movies). Not every committee can deliver Watergate-era theatrics, either from the panel of senators or in a retort from the witness table, as in Joseph Welch’s famous question to Joe McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency?”

But the lack of fireworks doesn’t mean something important isn’t going on, particularly when it concerns the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has been around for 42 years and now consumes $9 billion of our taxes every year. That’s enough to pay for 17,000 employees, a number equal to the population of a small city, and for all sorts of mischief. Remember the adventures of the mighty snail darter.

Lisa P. Jackson, the most recent administrator of the EPA, drew considerable fire for setting up an agency email account under the “nom de pixel” Richard Windsor as a way, she said, for certain people to reach her directly. Congress was not amused. Neither did the Democratic congressional caucus swallow her excuse: “Well, the people before me did the same thing.”

Fast forward to spring 2013 and the “testimony” of Regina “Gina” McCarthy, a onetime environmental adviser to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and now an associate administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. President Obama nominated Ms. McCarthy to succeed Mrs. Jackson as agency chief. The Environment and Public Works Committee expects to vote on her nomination Thursday.

“With days left before her confirmation hearing, [Ms.] McCarthy has not shown any greater commitment to a higher standard of transparency, one that the agency desperately needs,” says Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the committee’s top Republican. “The unresponsive answers received are unacceptable.”

In a letter, Mr. Vitter asked the nominee to explain how the agency measures the health benefits of its air-quality standards. It was a straightforward question. Ms. McCarthy responded that the “EPA acknowledges in the regulatory impact analyses that there are unquantified benefits and disbenefits that are not included in our estimates of total net benefits.”

“Disbenefits,” a word that George Orwell might wish he had used in a satire, is the least of Ms. McCarthy’s ambiguities. In 123 pages — yes, pages — of written questions and answers, the nominee bobs and weaves with the skill of Muhammad Ali at the famous “Thrilla in Manila” four decades ago. Asked about retaining her notes in the EPA’s instant-messaging system, Ms. McCarthy said she doesn’t use the system: “If I’m confirmed, I commit to reviewing the agency’s policies on this topic.” She made a similar pledge about EPA studies of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” as well as questions about the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would create thousands of jobs, but the necessary approval has languished, like so many other decisions that go unmade in the Obama White House.

The EPA began as a feel-good project in the Nixon administration. It has grown into a bloated and powerful sub-Cabinet agency that can block renovation of a farmer’s barn or a homeowner’s expansion plans. The EPA harasses businesses big and small. The administrator’s job is too important to put in the hands of someone who thinks the people’s business should be conducted in secret.

Congress generally and traditionally defers to the president’s choices of who fills his administration. But this obligates the president to make responsible choices. Gina McCarthy must be far more specific and accountable before she deserves confirmation.

The Washington Times

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