EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, perhaps the Administration’s most accomplished stonewaller, goes before the House government oversight committee today to testify — again — about his refusal to grant a waiver for California to regulate vehicle greenhouse gas emissions despite unanimous staff support for such a waiver.
So far, Johnson has been a most reluctant witness, going so far as to schedule overseas trips to avoid attending congressional hearings. But Rep. Henry Waxman’s committee staff has continued digging, reviewing thousands of documents and interviewing witnesses outside the public eye. Yesterday, in advance of Johnson’s appearance, Waxman released a 20-page memo and supporting documents on what his committee has found so far.
The headliner of the memo is that a top EPA official conceded in sworn testimony that he believed that Johnson changed his mind about supporting the waiver after he talked to the White House:
In one deposition, EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett told congressional investigators that Johnson in August and September was “very interested in a full grant of the waiver,” then said he thought a partial grant of the waiver “was the best course of action.”
California has the right to enact tougher air pollution laws under the Clean Air Act but must secure a waiver from the EPA.
Johnson denied California’s request in December. When asked whether the administrator communicated with the White House in between his preference to do a partial grant and the ultimate decision, Burnett said, “I believe the answer is yes.”
With a flourish, the EPA dismissed the news that Johnson has initially supported the waiver. “I equate this to deciding whether to wear a red tie or a blue tie in the morning,” an EPA spokesperson told Reuters. “It doesn’t make much difference until I put the tie on. To go through and suggest that maybe (Johnson) had a different opinion during the process — none of that matters.”
As the Post‘s Juliet Eilperin notes, the details of the White House involvement remain murky:
It remains unclear how exactly senior Bush officials intervened in the decision. Burnett said he was instructed not to answer questions about the White House’s involvement, and the White House maintains that Johnson was not influenced by his talks with White House officials.
“As Administrator Johnson said in his statement, he made an independent decision and his decision was based on the facts and the law,” said Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Given Johnson’s previous refusals to divulge what he and the White House discussed, don’t expect Waxman to make much progress with Johnson in today’s hearing. The real fireworks may be between committee Democrats and Republicans. Ranking Member Tom Davis (R-VA) called yesterday’s majority memo “a knee-jerk conclusion of nefarious intent by the White House derived from a manifestly incomplete investigation.”