Why Isn’t Smart-Growth Pioneer Gina McCarthy Running the EPA Yet?

It’s been six months since Lisa Jackson announced she was stepping down as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, but there’s still no replacement. President Obama nominated Gina McCarthy to be Jackson’s successor in early March, and the Senate EPW Committee confirmed the nomination almost a month ago – albeit by a party-line vote of 10-8.

Gina McCarthy will infuse the EPA with a smart growth ethic -- if Republicans ever let her nomination proceed to a vote.

Committee Republicans boycotted her confirmation hearing but submitted an astounding quantity of questions for her to answer – more than a thousand of them, almost two-thirds from Ranking Member David Vitter. She responded to every single one, but Vitter still claims that the EPA is withholding information. He said this week he’ll delay the vote until the EPA can provide justification for some of its regulations.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt is joining Vitter in holding up the nomination for his own reasons, something to do with a dispute over a quarter-mile gap in a levee in his state.

The pity of it is that McCarthy has the chops to be an excellent EPA administrator. She comes from the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, which oversees air quality issues. But before that, she left an impressive smart growth legacy in New England – including a significant stint during the progressive and forward-thinking part of Mitt Romney’s tenure as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney was the fifth Massachusetts governor McCarthy worked for, and he promoted her to undersecretary for policy at the Executive Office for Environmental Affairs. That office was merged with the state departments of housing, transportation, and energy to form the Office for Commonwealth Development – a precursor to President Obama’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities – and Romney picked McCarthy to be its deputy secretary of operations.

According to a Mother Jones article from last year, environmentalists in the state enthusiastically praised McCarthy’s performance in the role, calling her “terrific — plainspoken, smart, and very aggressive.” The office used state funds to support compact and transit-oriented development, implemented a far-reaching Climate Protection Plan that sought to reduce emissions enough to “eliminate any dangerous threat to the climate,” and crafted a 20-year Strategic Transportation Plan that focused on transit.

When Romney got it into his head to run for president, he turned his back on his own best ideas, and the people he’d hired to implement them. Luckily for her, McCarthy had split the state by then, crossing the border to Connecticut to run that state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

McCarthy is lauded for taking politics out of that department and helping to propel the state’s landmark responsible-growth law, which established a task force to guide the state’s economic development decisions and study state land use policies and programs.

“We are charting a new, anti-sprawl course for Connecticut,” Republican Governor Jodi Rell said upon introduction of the legislation. “With this law, we will have at long last real planning throughout Connecticut. Real planning that makes sure that housing developments provide ready access to passenger rail and bus service. Economic growth planning that coordinates the work of our state agencies in the areas of transportation, housing, public health and work force development. Planning that promotes roadway design supporting state and local economic development while preserving the character as well as the walkability of our communities.”

Rell spoke eloquently of her commitment to stop “demolishing beautiful green fields and flattening hillsides” for development and to encourage more walking, biking and transit in “attractive, livable, economically strong communities.” Gina McCarthy’s stamp was all over those policies.

McCarthy also helped create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a New England emissions-reduction pact, and pioneered the best-named program in environmental protection: No Child Left Inside, an effort to get kids to explore the outdoors.

Indeed, no one says McCarthy isn’t qualified for the EPA job. Despite what Republicans say about their concerns regarding transparency, at least one Democratic insider says the real point of the delay is just to hobble the agency for long enough that Obama can’t push any big initiatives on climate change before he’s a lame duck.

Of course, as the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin noted a few weeks ago, the delay on McCarthy’s nomination is leaving interim chief Bob Perciasepe in the role – and he may be an even more uncompromising environmental defender.