You can say that the Bush Administration is a band of crooks. You can say that they're by and large incompetent. But you can't say they lack chutzpah.
And when it comes to chutzpah, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson clearly has got what it takes. But will he hold the line now that Congress is bringing its probing power to bear?
Late last month, Johnson denied California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. It was an act of pure, unmitigated, just-because-I-can chutzpah.
A little background first: California's rule would seek to cut emissions by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016. Not surprisingly, that's a much steeper cut than the Bush Administration (and the auto industry) wants. Since other states are following California's lead, half of the American population (and car consumers) could be affected. The CEOs of Ford and Chrysler met with Dick Cheney late last year to have a chat about this.
But Johnson came through. Consider Johnson denied California its waiver (states have to get the EPA's OK before instituting environmental rules) despite:
-- the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs that he should grant the waiver
-- being told by the agency's legal staff that if he blocked the waiver, EPA would lose in court when California and environmentalists sued, but that if he granted the waiver, the move would stand in court no matter who challenged it
-- not having any real reason for denying the waiver
-- California has never had a waiver denied in the Clean Air Act's 37-year history
So far, in the two weeks since Johnson made his move, journalists haven't had much luck finding anyone who will say that his decision is supportable. The Washington Post quoted William Reilly, who was EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush as saying, "What I want to know from the [administration] is: What possible grounds would there possibly be to deny California this waiver?"
As for Johnson and the administration, their tactic seems to be to brazen their way through this.
The President has offered a "clear national solution" to the problem of auto greenhouse omissions, Johnson said. He had to block California's rules because it would lead to a "confusing patchwork of state rules."
And about that unanimous-staff-revolt thing? His spokeswoman says that Johnson "tremendously values the legal and technical expertise of his staff," but that "the Clean Air Act states that the authority to decide waiver requests rests with the administrator. He evaluated the waiver ... and obviously he made his decision." So there.
President Bush certainly thought Johnson made the right call. "Is it more effective to let each state make a decision as to how to proceed in curbing greenhouse gases? Or is it more effective to have a national strategy?" So much for state's rights.
But now comes the real test of Johnson's chutzpah reservoir. House sleuth Henry Waxman (D-CA) says that he'll investigate the decision. Senate environmental committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) will hold hearings. And yesterday Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) requested that the EPA's inspector general launch an investigation.
And don't forget the courts. That lawsuit with the foreordained outcome has already been launched. Yesterday, California, 15 other states, and five environmental group filed suit.
How will Johnson hold up under Waxman's questioning? Stay tuned.