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Is It Time To Depoliticize EPA’s Regional Administrators?

As it nears the close of its first year in office, the Obama Administration has thus far failed to name half of the regional administrators for its ten regional offices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and it was only on November 5th that it named those five officials. The reason for the lengthy delay in making appointments to these posts is not immediately apparent. Perhaps the Administration is anxious to avoid stirring up any political controversies regarding particular appointees, whose designation may create discontent among elements of the president’s political coalition or fodder for partisan Republican attacks. Alternatively, the Administration—which has been quite slow to fill other high posts at EPA and some other federal agencies—may simply be way behind in “vetting” all candidates for federal appointments. Yet another possibility is that Administration officials may now be too preoccupied with other pressing environmental issues to pay more attention to filling vacancies at the regional level. Whatever their cause, however, some employees in EPA’s regional offices tell me they are now beginning to view these unusually long appointment delays as a signal that the importance of their work has been minimized by the Obama Administration’s leaders–a most dysfunctional and unwelcome trend.

Beyond these short-term, intra-Agency consequences however, the continuing delays in the appointment of EPA regional administrators raise a more fundamental question: should EPA regional administrators be political appointees in the first place? In the past, these significant regional posts have often been filled by individuals who are beholden to state and local officials within the group of States that comprise their regions. While EPA regional administrators are not subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate, presidential Administrations traditionally consult with the Senators from the states in a particular region with regard to candidates for those jobs. Individual Senators, in turn, are often influenced by the opinions of officials in State environmental agencies, entities which (in some instances) are unduly receptive to the concerns of polluting industries within their State. Without question, there have been exceptions. Nevertheless, in a number of situations, this political process has resulted in the selection of EPA regional administrators who have resisted attempts to oversee state agency performance in a robust manner, and who have been unsympathetic to pressures (from EPA headquarters and elsewhere) to enforce federal environmental laws vigorously.

An alternative to the political appointment of EPA regional administrators is the conversion of their offices to civil service positions. That approach would, I concede, give less “political heft” to these jobs, and future regional administrators might be less equipped to “check and balance” anti-environmental policies emanating from Washington, D.C. during environmentally unfriendly Administrations. At the same time however, filling regional administratorships with career civil servants would slow or end much of the politicization that has too often stifled EPA’s implementation of environmental laws at the regional level. It would encourage greater steadiness and continuity in regional office management, and it would provide additional career opportunities for EPA’s senior staff, a partial antidote to the low morale and disaffection that has plagued some very capable federal employees—within EPA and beyond—over much of the past two decades.

Depoliticizing EPA’s regional administrators will certainly not solve all of EPA’s internal woes. Nonetheless, at a time when experience, professionalism, and objectivity are more critical than ever to the achievement of the Agency’s vital mission, it seems an approach well worth trying.

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