A quiet choice for the EPA

In naming a long-time employee to lead the agency, is Bush choosing a leader or a lapdog?

By Tim Grieve
Published March 4, 2005 7:14PM (EST)

George W. Bush named Stephen Johnson to head the Environmental Protection Agency today. Johnson is an unusual Bush pick for a couple of reasons -- he's a longtime government employee, and he isn't inspiring widespread outrage from environmental groups.

Johnson, who has worked at the EPA for 24 years, has served as the agency's acting administrator since Michael Leavitt left to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. In nominating Johnson to serve as the new EPA administrator, Bush may be seeking to "lower the profile" of the agency, a former senior EPA official tells the Los Angeles Times. "He's not going to push back," said the former official, who worked with Johnson at the EPA. "He's not ideological. He has no agenda of his own."

In a statement e-mailed to reporters, Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope said that Johnson is "the best we could expect as a Bush nominee." But like the former EPA official who spoke with the Times, Pope expressed concern about Johnson's ability to take a stand against misguided policy ideas from the White House. "The real challenge for Mr. Johnson will be dealing with the White House's agenda to weaken clean air and clean water protections and ignore global warming," Pope said. "We hope that Mr. Johnson can rise above the White House's expectations that he will be a figurehead."

The concerns seem well placed. Bush's first EPA chief, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, came to the job with political power independent of the president's but left the job in frustration. If Johnson starts the job without a base of power of his own, it's probably too much to hope that he'll be able to stand up to even the worst plans from the White House -- assuming, for the moment, that he'd even want to try.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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