Sixth in a series
WASHINGTON — A tortured and bitter nomination battle may have stalled Gina McCarthy’s selection as the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, but it has firmly established David Vitter as one of the Senate’s most inquisitive members.
The Republican from Louisiana has secured his place in the annals of congressional gridlock by posing a flood of 653 questions — with demands for comprehensive, written answers — to McCarthy, a career regulator who served four Republican governors in Massachusetts and has bipartisan support outside the Capitol.
Vitter’s colleagues have posed an additional 400 or so questions, boosting the total above 1,000 and raising the Republicans’ tactic of aggressive questioning to new prominence in the state of permanent partisan warfare over Obama’s Cabinet nominees.
Democrats call the questions a form of harassment. But Republicans say the nomination presents an important window to draw out a prospective official’s views on important issues. To wit: Vitter’s 653 questions range from a multi-pronged query about ethanol gas blends to a challenge of “the EPA’s authority to regulate the flow of runoff into a storm sewer” to a question about a delayed permit for a “state-of-the-art waste-to-energy facility” in Puerto Rico.
Taken together, the questions amount to one of the most exhaustive job applications imaginable.
“Can you comment on Australia’s experience with a carbon tax?” Vitter asks in one written query.
The response from McCarthy: “I am not familiar with the details of Australia’s carbon tax.”
Democrats are poised on Thursday to try to secure a committee vote on McCarthy’s nomination that would permit her to be considered by the full Senate. Republicans foiled an initial attempt to hold a committee vote last week by boycotting a scheduled hearing and denying the Democrats a quorum.
Vitter, the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, continued to withhold support throughout the week because McCarthy had yet to answer to GOP satisfaction five additional requests for EPA data and agency e-mails. They also are attempting to extract a pledge from McCarthy to conduct cost-benefit analyses before enforcing rules.
Republicans have been investigating EPA’s record-keeping practices, particularly the use of personal e-mail accounts and e-mail aliases by top officials for public business.
Vitter’s office declined an interview request through a spokeswoman, who said in an e-mail that the remaining issue is “five transparency requests that the EPA has stonewalled on. Five. Not a hundred, not a thousand. Five.”
McCarthy served in senior policy positions under governors Mitt Romney, Jane Swift, Paul Cellucci, and William F. Weld. She also served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection from 2005 through 2009, under another Republican governor, Jodi Rell.
McCarthy’s opponents have not taken issue with her qualifications, integrity, or commitment.
Instead, they have broader critiques of the EPA, which many Republicans see as an obstinate bureaucracy with too much power to regulate, without regard to the burdens regulations place on businesses.
The nominee’s two-hour hearing on April 11 featured few questions about McCarthy and her career and qualifications. Rather, it was dominated by scrutiny of EPA enforcement policies and its practice of using multiple e-mail accounts for senior agency officials.
Congress has a long tradition of posing written questions to presidential nominees and others who sit before congressional committees. But in recent years the numbers have escalated, from dozens, to hundreds, and now to this, a total of 1,120 questions for McCarthy (including questions from Democrats).
The last three EPA chiefs, dating back to 2003, received between 157 and 305 written questions, Democratic officials say. Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew fielded 444 written questions — 700 if multipart questions are counted separately — far more than any of his recent predecessors, according to media reports.
“One thousand questions is beyond the point of absurdity,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist and coauthor of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”
Ornstein said the lengthy questionnaires may serve a greater purpose with Supreme Court nominees, who have lifetime appointments and detailed legal records. But applying the same test to Cabinet secretaries represents a new standard.
“This is ratcheting up obstruction and partisan warfare to an unprecedented level,” he said.
Answering the questions took two weeks’ time by an undisclosed number of federal employees, who received them four days after McCarthy provided public testimony in a hearing on April 11.
The EPA and the White House would not say how many employees and hours were involved, though attorneys were clearly required on the numerous questions dealing with court cases or interpretation of existing regulations.
And forget about the EPA’s mission to conserve resources. The printout for Vitter’s questions and answers alone tallies 123 pages, with a full 234 pages required to print the answers to all 1,120 questions.
Vitter’s questions are posted on the website of the Senate’s environment committee, where he serves as ranking Republican. They cover nearly every recent grievance Republicans have had with the EPA: related to fuel standards, emissions, greenhouse gases, clean water regulations, and hydraulic fracturing. Some are multipart, replete with references to regulatory codes and government acronyms. Others challenge past practices or ask for future policy commitments.
McCarthy answered all of the questions, though not always directly. For instance, rather than give her opinion on a potential tax on carbons, she simply wrote that the Obama administration is not planning to propose one.
In public statements, Vitter has pointed out that Democrats boycotted a committee hearing for an EPA administrator under Republican President George W. Bush, in 2003.
Other Republicans have stood by Vitter’s request for more information.
Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who serves on the committee, said he opposes McCarthy’s confirmation because “the EPA is failing America and Gina McCarthy has been an important part of that failure over the last four years.”
She has served as assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation since 2009.
But Barrasso directed a reporter to Vitter when asked about the precedent for submitting so many questions to nominees.
“Every senator speaks for himself or herself. Every senator can then ask as many questions as he or she feels are warranted,” Barrasso said.
Senator John Thune, a South Dakota member of the Republican leadership team, said past nominations should set the parameters.
“If they’re legitimate, fair questions, trying to get information about that nominee, how they’re going to conduct themselves in office, that’s fair game,” he said. “Obviously, there are questions at some point that become redundant. But I have not looked at the thousand-question list.”
Senator Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who heads the environmental committee, said the whole thing is irritating.
“She’s answered 1,000 plus questions and now they say they’re only concerned about five questions,” she said. “Well then, why did they send her over 1,000 questions? To me it’s harassing.”
Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.