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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reilly Looks Back, and Ahead

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with outgoing EPA administrator William Reilly about the successes and failure of his tenure under President Bush, and what the future may hold for his successor, Carol Browner.


CURWOOD: The outgoing EPA administrator, William Reilly, has presided over a revival of sorts at the EPA, rejuvenating the agency after the scandals and neglect of the Reagan years. Yet Reilly's tenure has been marked by almost constant friction with the White House, with environmentalists and with business, as the Bush administration pursued contradictory environmental policies. And that he managed to complete all four years under President Bush comes as a surprise to some. Now, about to leave office, Reilly has some words of advice for his successor, Carol Browner.

REILLY: Well, you know, a practical piece of advice is -- and I did give this to her at lunch the other day -- is move very fast. Get out early, with your new appointees, select your priorities, and don't allow yourself to be distracted from them. Recognize that you will never have a more congenial opportunity to close on your major priorities than the first six months or so of your service. If there is an early success, then I think the whole rest of her relationship with Congress and her tenure in this job will go easier. That would be my principal bit of advice to her.

CURWOOD: Where do you see the most important priorities ahead for your successor?

REILLY: The first thing that needs to be done is to reauthorize the Clean Water Act. One of my regrets is that we did not do that on our watch. We didn't push for it frankly because many of our friends in Congress, friends of the environment, cautioned that to bring Clean Water up in a climate that was very negative on wetlands, for example, and very preoccupied with the recession, would not have been helpful -- would have caused a focus on property rights issues and ideological argument, would not have allowed us to address what I think is the largest remaining water quality problem we have in the country and that's, that's diffuse pollution, the stuff that flows off farms and construction sites and forest sites. That needs to be attended to in the next Congress, and I hope they give it a priority.

CURWOOD: I wanted to ask you, you've got just a few days to go before your term at the EPA ends -- what do you feel was your greatest accomplishment as the administrator of EPA?

REILLY: Well, I suppose the most important thing that we did was to propose a comprehensive new Clean Air Act, one that has measures in it that really point the way, I think, to legislation that we could craft on clean water and on recycling and any number of things that we need to do in the next Congress for this country.

CURWOOD: What's the key battle you lost?

REILLY: Well, I suppose the critical battle we lost was to take a really forward-leaning position at the Rio conference last summer. It was not ultimately a good idea to use the President's willingness to attend the conference as a bargaining chip to try to get our interpretation agreed to in the climate convention. That worked as a tactic -- it was successful in the short run, it allowed us to prevail. But in the longer run it created the perception that we were dragging our feet, that we were reluctant to go to a conference which ought to have been the capstone for environmental achievements in this Administration that I think exceed those of all others, and certainly, incontestably, a nation that has done more for the environment than any other. But I think one has to remember the economic context that we approached Rio in, and also realize the political realities of a very sharply ideological attack on the President that time from within his own party, that among other things was premised on a sense that we had gone too far on the environment, that we were excessively regulating the economy. That was the nature of the attack; I don't think it ever was a correct attack, and I think in fact many of our environmental measures have strengthened the environment. But back last June or so, that was not the perception in the country, and it certainly wasn't the perception in the party.

CURWOOD: We heard a lot of talk about some pretty tough battles that you had with Vice President Quayle's Council on Competitiveness over the regulation process, and we haven't heard from President-elect Clinton about what he's going to do with the Council on Competitiveness, although Vice President-elect Gore has been pretty vocal about saying the process of having this White House agency review regulations in his view is illegal. Do you think there's a place for something like the Council on Competitiveness in future Administrations?

REILLY: Well, all Presidents, going back to Nixon, have had some kind of mechanism to try to coordinate economic policy, or those decisions that have an economic impact. In my view, the mistake that was made in our Administration was to allow lower-level people excessive authority to hold up regulations, to stimulate conflicts, and to defer too little to the primary-line agencies like EPA. We created the impression of a lack of substantive support for an aggressive, forward-leaning environmental policy. The record of the Administration, where we've established enforcement records that are off the charts, we've had the budget increase fifty percent for EPA, when the rest of the government was increasing by about five percent for discretionary spending, we've acquired impressive amounts of land -- all of these things are undeniable, but I think the public does not really know or appreciate that; what the public is aware of is the great conflicts we've had. That is something I would hope the new Administration can learn from, and correct.

CURWOOD: William Reilly is the outgoing administrator of the EPA. After leaving office Mr. Reilly says he'll be returning to his former organization, the World Wildlife Fund, where he'll become a senior fellow. He'll also be taking a few trips to the jungle.



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