Gina McCarthy: A return to bi-partisanship in environmentalism?

Keith Gaby

Update: After 136 days, Gina McCarthy was finally confirmed as EPA Administrator on July 18, 2013.

Last week brought very welcome news that Senator David Vitter (R-LA) does not support using a filibuster to block the confirmation of Gina McCarthy to be EPA Administrator. Vitter had been McCarthy’s chief inquisitor during the confirmation process – asking for written answers to more than 700 questions – and many thought he’d try to use the Senate rules to block a vote on her nomination. If McCarthy had lost her opportunity to serve based on partisanship, it would have carried more than the usual Washington irony, given her stellar bipartisan credentials.

We are often so invested in the politics of the moment that we forget things haven’t always been this way. Environmental issues used to be far more bi-partisan than they seem today. President Nixon and Democrats in Congress were partners in creating the major landmarks of our environmental law, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the EPA itself. In 1990, a major revision of the Clean Air Act — which created the highly successful cap-and-trade policy for sulfur dioxide — was passed 401-21 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate, and signed by President Bush.

But somewhere along the way, things changed. While there are areas of common ground, many high profile environmental issues have become partisan wedges, with the two parties disagreeing even on the fundamentals of science.

Like a lot things in Congress, McCarthy’s nomination has been caught up in these partisan skirmishes, despite the fact that she personifies that old bi-partisan spirit. And if she is confirmed by the Senate this week her tenure at EPA might help us return, at least a little bit, to a more civil national dialogue on environmental issues. Or, at least, it should.

McCarthy is truly a non-partisan expert. Before being hired by President Obama to run the air division of EPA in his first term, she worked for several Republican governors. In fact, you can almost imagine if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 election, he might have picked her to run EPA – because he was one of those GOP governors she served.

For me, the most interesting thing about McCarthy’s professional history is that she didn’t have to change her views based on the political party of the person who appointed her. Her science-based, common-sense approach to the environment fit comfortably in both Republican and Democratic administrations. In both cases she listened to environmentalists and businesses, trying to achieve the cleanest air and water at the lowest cost for everyone. The way McCarthy put it recently, “I’ve worked for Republicans, I’ve worked for Democrats and I’ve worked with those who, frankly, could care less about party affiliation, and who simply care about rolling up their sleeves and figuring out how to move forward in a common sense, responsible manner that is consistent with the law, and with the science.”

I don’t expect Gina McCarthy’s approval for the EPA job will erase the ideological and partisan divisions over the environment. There are serious philosophical, regional, and economic divisions on these issues – and no area of policy, it seems, can fully escape the highly partisan nature of American politics.* But McCarthy’s path does show us what is possible. I hope her honest, straightforward, non-political approach is adopted by more people in Washington.

*Things are not as bad as they were in the 1790’s or 1850’s, but we could definitely use some more civility in politics.

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