Ron Arnold's Left Tracking Library

Carol Browner
Assistant to the President
for Energy and Climate Change


Excerpted from Undue Influence by Ron Arnold (1999). This is a historical look-back. Some information is now out of date.


Born: Dec. 16, 1955, Miami, Florida

Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency

Appointed at Gore’s specific request

Education: University of Florida (undergraduate)

University of Florida Law School

Worked for Nader-founded Citizen Action

Gore’s Senate staff legislative director

Secretary, Florida Department of Environmental Regulation

Transition director for Vice President-elect Gore

Husband: Michael Podhorzer, lobbyist for Citizens Fund

Carol M. Browner is the political animal par excellence. She’s tough. She’s aggressive. She’s an ideologue with sufficient savvy to hide it. Early on she served as a staffer in the Florida House of Representatives, then legislative assistant to former Sen. Lawton Chiles. She met husband Michael Podhorzer while working for Citizen Action, a nationwide consumer, campaign reform, and environmental lobbying group founded by Heather Booth in 1989. It claimed 3 million members, an annual budget of $4.5 million (much of it from the usual prescriptive foundations), affiliates and chapters across 30 states, making it the largest consumer organization of its kind. It collapsed in 1997 in a money laundering scandal trying to influence a Teamsters Union presidential election.

The EPA Bailiwick: Browner runs one of the creepiest of the mission creeps: from a modest beginning in 1970, the EPA has acquired nearly 20,000 employees and an annual budget of $7 billion. The numbers are a poor measure of EPA’s power because 1) its regulations have the force of law, 2) the agency can jail people, 3) it can close factories, 4) it can override the judgments of local authorities, and 5) it subsidizes scientists and environmental groups that support its policies with government grants.

EPA is perhaps the federal agency most susceptible to mission creep. It was created by President Richard Nixon in a reorganization order. Congress didn’t authorize it or give it a mission or define its regulatory powers. It was stuck together from a mish-mash of existing federal programs. It took over what eventually grew into thirteen environmental statutes, each with its own constituencies.

EPA became the perfect instrument for a federal power grab, turning local issues—chemical spills, groundwater contamination, abandoned dump sites—into federal matters.

EPA administrators were not slow to see the possibilites. Douglas Costle in 1978 shifted the focus of the agency to protect not just the environment but also health—your health.

People care about the environment, but we’re much more concerned about our health. Tell Americans about an alleged threat to our health and we break out in a sweat. If it’s cancer, we panic. Costle launched the EPA on a cancer hunt, looking for carcinogens in foods and air and water. Cancerphobia expanded his agency’s reach and wrung more money from Congress. Asbestos. Dioxin. PCBs. Alar. Sunlight.

Creep, creep, creep. Through several administrators.

Then came Gore and Browner.

Browner put scads of mission creeps from environmental groups into top EPA jobs. A sample:

Kathleen Aterno, Clean Water Action: Deputy Assistant Administrator, EPA Office of Administration and Resource Management.

David Doniger, Natural Resources Defense Council: Senior Counsel to EPA Assistant Secretary for Air and Radiation.

J. Charles Fox, Friends of the Earth: Special Assistant (Reinvention) to EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

David M. Gardiner, Sierra Club: Assistant EPA Administrator for Policy Planning and Evaluation.

Jean Nelson, Natural Resources Defense Council: EPA General Counsel.

Mary D. Nichols, Tennessee Environmental Action Fund, Southern Environmental Law Center: Associate EPA Administrator for Air & Radiation.

D. Reid Wilson, Sierra Club Political Action Committee: Director of Public Liaison Division, EPA Office of Communications, Education & Public Affairs.

Browner’s loyalty to Gore’s centralizing vision can be illustrated by her victories in two key areas: racheting up regulations by decree and subverting local government decisions.

Regulations: EPA has gained a reputation for imposing many unnecessary costs on American industry, dismantling industrial civilization piece by piece—costs that do more to satisfy bureaucratic zeal than to clean the air or water. Browner gave EPA a lot of that reputation.

Her most spectacular victory came in 1997 over clean air regulations. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review standards for assorted pollutants at least every five years. These standards are legal definitions of what qualifies as healthy air. Once levels are set, the EPA wrangles with states, localities and industries over how they can be met. Compliance plans often stretch out over a number of years. Air quality has improved dramatically since passage of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. Cities that spent fortunes complying with clean air rules hoped—especially in areas that needed new jobs—that the standards would remain stable. They thought they had done the job. The EPA’s own data showed that particulate levels had a huge drop over the previous decade. Most cities expected to be removed from the list of so-called nonattainment areas for ozone and particulate matter—smog and soot.

But the American Lung Association had sued the EPA in 1993, forcing the agency to review the existing standards regarding ground-level ozone and particulate matter. EPA examined 5,000 scientific studies, held public meetings and submitted its preliminary findings to a panel of outside scientists. On the basis of the data, the decision could go either way.

In November of 1996, Browner, following Gore’s plan, set up a power play of breathtaking scope: she abruptly announced the most significant rewriting of federal air quality standards since the 1970s—the administration had already failed to get BTU taxes through Congress, and a secret 1994 White House memo proposed no fewer than 39 different taxes and fees on energy the administration could impose under existing statutes, without having to get congressional approval. This was the followup.

The new regulations would force scores of states and cities to do their State Implementation Plans (SIPs) all over, either finding new ways to cut pollution or facing sanctions, including the loss of federal highway money. It was a risky but bold way to begin phasing out the use of coal and other fossil fuels, as Gore had recommended in his book.

Why did Browner decide on such a massive and controversial rewrite? It was a strategic strike to defend bigger plans. Here’s how it worked:

When the Republicans took over Congress following the 1994 midterm election, EPA found itself embroiled in a series of conflicts with the new GOP majority on Capitol Hill. In addition to pushing legislation aimed at reducing regulatory burdens on businesses and local governments, Republican lawmakers also sought to cut the budgets of wayward agencies.

With its long history of well-documented complaints from the regulated community, EPA was an inviting target. Browner handled the threat crudely at first, according to a report by the National Wilderness Institute:

On March 15, 1995, Dr. Rosemarie Russo, director of EPA’s lab in Athens, Ga., received a phone call from EPA headquarters in Washington, DC. This was no ordinary phone call; it came from Acting Assistant Administrator Dr. Gary Foley. Foley asked Russo if anyone on her staff had good connections with any members of Congress.

Prompting the call was a vote in the House of Representatives scheduled for that afternoon on a bill sponsored by Rep. Clifford Stearns (R-Florida) which would cut EPA’s budget. Foley explained that EPA employees were being asked to contact lawmakers and try to persuade them to vote against the bill. According to notes Russo made during the conversation, Foley said EPA employees should go about this “without getting into trouble.”

Russo told Foley that the only person on her staff with such connections was microbiologist Dr. David L. Lewis who was friends with Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Georgia). She asked if she should pass the request on to Lewis, and Foley answered affirmatively. According to Lewis’s testimony, Russo was told by Foley that the instructions originated in the office of Administrator Browner.

For his part, Lewis flatly refused to contact Norwood, pointing out that having government employees lobby Congress from their offices and during government business hours was a clear violation of the Anti-Lobbying Act of 1940 which strictly prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in such activities. Russo agreed that the request was probably illegal.

Both Lewis and Russo accused EPA of wrongdoing and were subsequently harassed with false accusations by Browner’s lieutenants, likely violating federal whistleblower protection laws. Both had to retain attorneys to defend themselves. After an extended legal action, EPA settled with Lewis, but reneged on their agreement. Russo is still fighting.

As it turns out, Stearns had proposed a bill to de-fund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), not EPA. So EPA headquarters had solicited an illegal act to lobby against something that didn’t even exist.

That wasn’t all. Nineteen EPA officials signed and published a letter protesting “egregious conduct” by EPA under Browner, misdeeds ranging from creating backdated documents for filing with a federal court to punishing career scientists for coming up with the “wrong” answers in their research. All this did not enhance EPA’s budget chances in Congress.

Browner is a bold strategist. She looked for the main chance.

Rewriting the air regulations confronted Congress with something that would make slashing her budget look like heresy.

Browner had a ready-made army of outside supporters to push for the new regulations—all funded by EPA grants.

American Lung Association. Between 1990 and 1994, the EPA gave the lung association’s national office and its various state chapters more than $4 million. In 1995, the EPA gave the group close to $1 million more. The ALA sued the EPA almost every year, claiming the agency wasn’t complying with the nation’s clean air laws, which the EPA welcomed because each suit expanded the reach of the agency.

Natural Resources Defense Council. In 1995 alone, the council got more than $1 million from the EPA. NRDC has repeatedly sued the EPA, always charging that the EPA isn’t doing enough to protect public health. Between 1993 and 1996, the agency paid more than $150,000 for the NRDC’s legal costs. Several NRDC air pollution studies were funded in part by grants from the EPA.

World Resources Institute. $310,000 cumulative grants from EPA. $4,180,702 in total government funding, or 24 percent of its total $17,565,180 1995 revenue. WRI head Jonathan Lash is one of Al Gore’s top policy circle insiders, well regarded for his loyal support of the Kyoto Protocol, lower automobile emissions through higher gas taxes, and as a supporter of Browner’s new air regulations. Lash came to WRI in 1993 from the Environmental Law Center at the Vermont Law School where he directed the environmental law program. He was Vermont Secretary of Natural Resources and a senior staff attorney for the group mentioned above, the Natural Resources Defense Council.

New York University. $383,008 in 1996 over three years to Professor of Environmental Medicine George D. Thurston to study “acidic particulate matter.” An activist advocate, Dr. Thurston organized dozens of scientists and health professionals at the Institute of Environmental Medicine at NYU School of Medicine, asserting that the current standards “are not sufficiently protective of public health. Tens of thousands of hospital visits and premature deaths could be prevented each year by more stringent air quality standards for these two pollutants [ozone and particulate matter].”

Harvard School of Public Health. $196,185 in 1996 over three years to Professor Joel Schwartz (a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient) to study “ultrafine particulate matter.” Schwartz appeared as the main scientific witness at a May 1997 press conference held by the Natural Resources Defense Council at which he said the tiny specks in his study “have killed more people than AIDS” over the past five years. He vilified a meeting of scientists gathered to discuss the new regulations as “industry thugs” because they had accepted industry funding. Harvard’s School of Public Health accepted $3 million in EPA grants in 1996.

On cue, Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said, “These standards mean fewer sick days for workers, lowered health care costs and more kids in school instead of the hospital.”

Playing the children’s health card always works, as Douglas Costle first realized. What member of Congress wants to face reelection hung with the stigma of holding out on sick kids?

Forbes magazine noted that attendees of Capitol Hill hearings snicker at Browner’s constant references to her son, Zachary, when she testifies on environmental issues. But she never misses a chance to repeat the message. In her prepared testimony before Congress, Browner asked, “How do I put a dollar value on reductions in a child’s lung function or the premature aging of lungs or increased susceptibility to respiratory infection?”

“If we can focus on protecting the children . . . we will be protecting the population at large, which is obviously our job,” she told Forbes.

As Bonner Cohen asked: Who said that was her job?

Nobody, but that’s what mission creep is all about.

Congress had not specifically authorized the harsher standards, but neither had they given the agency prudent oversight to keep it in control. Senators and Representatives quietly cursed their own neglect and loudly howled that Browner didn’t consult with them first before acting on such an oppressive and costly new regulation. They were furious.

In June, 1997, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI), then-ranking minority member of the House Commerce Committee, along with several prominent Democrats, threatened publicly to “go to war” with the White House over the standards.

That sparked a fierce, monthlong internal White House war, pitting Browner against White House economists.

By early July Browner painted Bill Clinton into a corner.

The president had stayed out of the fracas as long as he could, but at the approach of his scheduled July 26 speech at a United Nations summit on the environment, European allies criticized him for being slow to agree to a timetable on reducing greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

The president faced the politically embarrassing choice of supporting Browner’s unpopular regulations or repudiating his outspoken EPA administrator at an awkward moment. It forced his hand.

By tinkering with the details, Bill Clinton found a way to save face and stalemate Congress. Particulate standards would be delayed for five years to allow completion of a nationwide monitoring network. Cities would then have at least another two years to devise a strategy for reducing air pollution. Leniency was promised to states participating in pollution programs.

On July 25, 1997, Bill Clinton came out in support of Carol Browner.

Clinton’s decision was clearly seen as a tactical victory for Browner. Clinton administration officials even told the Washington Post of their resentment and said Clinton did not appreciate the public pressure.

It was a daring gamble for Browner and Al Gore, for it set them up to implement the global warming treaty without Senate ratification. The Kyoto Protocol and the new regulations both dealt with ozone and particulates—no coincidence. Now she didn’t need to bother with Congress.

The goalpost had been moved onto the next playing field.

Until a federal appeals court struck the standards down in 1999 as an unconstitutional delegation of congressional law-making authority.

Subverting local governments: One of Browner’s first actions after installing her environmentalist friends in EPA jobs was to set up the Office of Environmental Justice within EPA.

The environmental justice movement began in 1985 when Warren County, North Carolina, was selected for a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill near poor, mostly minority communities. The decision sparked widespread protests, marches and more than 500 arrests, including District of Columbia Delegate Walter Fauntroy (chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus). They didn’t stop the landfill, but they put “environmental racism” on the map and created the counterphrase “environmental justice.”

Two environmental justice activists, Benjamin Chavis, Jr. (Commission for Racial Justice), and Robert D. Bullard (Clark Atlanta University), served on the Clinton transition team in the natural resources and environment cluster and assisted in preparing a briefing book for newly designated EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

Al Gore, of course, was the touchstone. In a December 1993 speech at the African American Church Summit in Washington D.C., he cited environmental discrimination as a national problem.

On February 11, 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, ordering federal agencies to consider the health and environmental effects of their decisions on minority and low-income communities.

A White House report on EPA performance stated:

The agency’s future lies in promoting not only environmental safety, but environmental justice as well. Administrator Browner is acting to resolve both issues with major initiatives, and EPA’s senior management must follow through on her proposals.

The mission creeps another creep. The Office of Environmental Justice enforces various laws and passes out taxpayer-funded grants for studying the effects of pollutants on poorer, mostly black, communities.

Sounds wonderful. It has a down side: federal agencies have a new tool for subverting state agencies.

Example: In January 1997, Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality approved a $700 million polyvinyl chloride plant to be built by Japanese-owned Shintech in the predominantly black southern Louisiana town of Convent, on a chemical plant-lined stretch of the Mississippi river dubbed “Cancer Alley” by environmental justice activists. Shintech would create 195 good-paying jobs in an area with 60% unemployment and low incomes.

On May 22, 1997, Tulane Environmental Law Clinic filed a petition on behalf of 19 groups opposing the Shintech project. The St. James Parish Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supported the project.

On September 10, 1997, Browner said no go. Blacks would suffer disproportionately from potentially cancer-causing emissions of the plant.

Louisiana Economic Development Director Kevin Reilly said, “It is demeaning and despicable for these people to play the race card.” He said that poor people and blacks had little health risk and would have greatly improved quality of life from good jobs and access to health care.

In the April 1998 Journal of the Louisiana Medical Society, Vivien Chen and other researchers from the Louisiana State University Medical Center reported that the incidence of cancer in black women, white women and black men was below the national average in the river parishes. The cancer incidence for white men was equal to the national average, but no higher.

That’s the incidence rate. The death rate of those who did get cancer, however, told a different story: black men and women in those parishes had above average mortality from cancer, as did white men. Only white women, who had a below average incidence of cancer, also had a cancer mortality rate below the national average.

Incidence rates may reflect toxicity.

Death rates may reflect poverty and no access to medical care.

Environmentalists only talked about the mortality rates, not the incidence rates.

Maybe Cancer Alley isn’t cancer alley after all. It’s Poverty Row.

After a bitter legal wrangle, in September 1998 Shintech scrapped the project.

Score: Browner 1, State of Louisiana, 0.

After this victory, an Environmental Justice conference was arranged in Louisiana so the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to the EPA, could visit “hot spots” in the region.

A local committee was assembled to arrange the tour.

Included on this planning committee were Carol Gaudin and Ernest Johnson, President of Louisiana NAACP, two African Americans who supported Shintech’s project.

When Browner discovered they were on the committee, the two received telephone calls from EPA telling them they were no longer on the committee.

Rural cleansing, EPA style.

Now, what about Browner’s husband, Michael Podhorzer?

He’s a lobbyist for Citizen Action, according to newspaper accounts. Questions have arisen about possible conflicts of interest with two lawyers married to each other, one in government and another in a special interest group trying to influence government.

The Washington Post ran a 1994 feature on potential conflicts among married lawyers that mentioned Browner:

William McLucas, head of the SEC’s enforcement division, is engaged to Kaye Williams, a former SEC lawyer who last fall became assistant general counsel for the Securities Industry Association, the trade group representing firms regulated by the SEC. Williams says there’s no problem: “We are both lawyers who have ethical obligations to keep client information privileged.” Besides, she adds, she doesn’t deal with enforcement issues.

That’s the same attitude taken by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner and her husband Michael Podhorzer, a lobbyist with the consumer group Citizens [sic] Action. Although the organization is involved in many environmental issues, Podhorzer says he handles only health issues.

As if EPA didn’t handle health issues.

But there’s more to this.

Website postings say Podhorzer is actually with Citizens Fund (1996 income: $3,609,576; Assets: $888,839), the 501(c)(3) arm of Citizen Action. Citizens Fund provides research, training, organizing and networking support for the national issues campaigns of Citizen Action.

The twin organizations not only operate health campaigns, they’re big in the campaign reform arena we examined in The Montana Initiative Wars.

Here’s what the Ottinger Foundation Handbook says:

As a 501(c)(4) organization, Citizen Action lobbies for campaign finance reform through its Campaign for a Responsible Congress program. The Campaign organizes reform supporters at the district level in targeted states, uses Citizens Fund research to focus media attention on money in politics, and airs paid television spots on the issue in targeted markets.

One of the most ambitious and far-reaching money-in-politics projects in the country, Citizen Fund’s reform program works to build state-level coalitions for publicly-financed campaigns. Citizens Fund publishes reports on the connections between campaign contributions and public policy, and organizes in support of public financing of political campaigns in eleven targeted states.

Citizens Fund research shows how campaign contributions buy special favor from legislators, enabling wealthy, corporate donors to profit at taxpayers’ expense. For example, a study released by Citizens Fund in January detailed the potpourri of special favors which the proposed balanced budget amendment offered 1994 Republican campaign contributors.

So Citizens Fund does a lot of things besides health issues. What Citizens Fund doesn’t do is tell you where it gets its money. As you may guess, it’s mostly from the usual prescriptive suspects: W. Alton Jones Foundation, John Merck Fund, Beldon Fund, Joyce Foundation, Surdna Foundation, Turner Foundation, Schumann Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Ruth Mott Fund, Ford Foundation, and others.218c

A key example: While Browner headed EPA, her husband’s group got money from W. Alton Jones Foundation “To inform public about health and environmental threats posed by pesticides and to promote protection and policy reform,” $60,000 in 1995; “To build public support for implementing least toxic methods of pest control in and around school building and public spaces,” $25,000 in 1996.

Who regulates pesticides? EPA. Who’s sleeping with the Administrator? Michael Podhorzer, Citizens Fund, who handles only health issues.

Let’s follow this another step: W. Alton Jones Foundation tells us its grants are by invitation only. They thus initiated the Citizens Fund pesticide-related grants. The board members knew that their director, John Peterson Myers, was working on his pesticide-related book, Our Stolen Future. Funding the EPA Administrator’s husbands’ group certainly wouldn’t hurt their chances of having her mentor Al Gore write the book’s introduction. Especially not after giving grants to help Gore’s buddy and 1988 presidential campaign press secretary, Arlie Schardt, do the book’s publicity through his Environmental Media Services, a project of the Tides Center, which won the contract to locate its headquarters in a national park run by a special trust including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The book did reinforce Al Gore’s views against man-made chemicals.

And Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign field director, Debra Callahan, was given a nice job with W. Alton Jones Foundation as grassroots director. She went on to a nicer job filling a spot Bruce Babbitt once occupied as president of the League of Conservation Voters before he was tapped for Interior Secretary. President Clinton spoke at the League’s 1998 annual dinner, introduced by Deb Callahan. “Extraordinarily incestuous.”