House Oversight Committee chair grows frustrated with evasiveness of EPA Administrator at hearing

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency came under sharp attack at a House hearing Tuesday, with Democratic lawmakers accusing him of repeatedly caving in to White House pressure on environmental issues such as global warming and a recently enacted health standard for smog.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson rejected the characterization and said that while he frequently discusses EPA matters with the White House, the decisions are his.

But Johnson, appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for nearly three hours, repeatedly refused to discuss conversations he had with the White House, nor provide a number of documents that have been subpoenaed by the committee concerning the smog standard and his refusal to allow California to proceed with rules to cut greenhouse gases.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee chairman, said depositions provided by senior EPA staff members suggest that Johnson had been overruled or heavily influenced by the White House on recent EPA decisions on the smog standard, its rejected of a waiver for California on global warming regulations, and the EPA ongoing deliberations on whether to regulate carbon dioxide.

"You have essentially become a figurehead," Waxman told Johnson. "... In each case, you backed down."

He said in each of the EPA cases "the pattern is the same. The president apparently insisted in his judgment and overrode the unanimous recommendations of EPA scientific and legal experts," said Waxman. "You reversed yourself after having candid conversations with the White House."

Johnson, a 27-year career EPA scientist himself before being elevated to head the agency, repeatedly insisted that he was the final decision maker on the issues cited by Waxman, although acknowledging frequent discussions with the White House on those and other matters.

But Waxman's committee can only guess on the details of those conversations and communications.

Johnson declined repeated requests by Democrats on the panel to provide any details about conversations he had with the White House, refusing at one point to even acknowledge whether he did or did not discuss the smog, California waiver or carbon dioxide rulemaking with the president.

Waxman, growing frustrated, said to Johnson, "It seems to me you're being awfully evasive and I don't know why you cannot tell this committee whether you in fact had a discussion about this rule, or that rule, or the other rule."

Shortly after, Republican lawmaker Darrell Issa of California attempted to intervene, but Waxman waved him off. Issa continued to call for point of order until Waxman angrily pounded his gavel and said to him, "I will have you physically removed from this meeting if you don't stop."

Waxman then again pressed Johnson, who finally answered, "I don't believe that it is appropriate for me to get into the details of what those conversations are or are not."

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With wire services.