Carol Browner, the longest-serving administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says she used to describe the relationship between state and federal environmental regulators as something like an arranged marriage.
"We had to stay together for the children," she quipped this week to an audience of journalists, environmentalists and representatives of government, labor and industry at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. She added that she scrapped the analogy after one state environmental official came up and kissed her.
Browner used her luncheon address to sketch her vision of the future of national environmental policy, which she said will be shaped by the response to two important challenges: the need for updated environmental laws and global climate change. Both will require "an engaged people, an engaged Congress and an engaged administration," she said.
The former secretary of Florida's Department of Environmental Regulation spoke of state agencies in broad but often positive terms, affirming the need for federal oversight to reinforce state efforts and maintain rigorous minimum pollution standards. Pointing to air pollution problems in the northeastern United States, Browner noted that pollution rarely respects state boundaries.
While touting the environmental efforts of the Clinton administration in such areas air regulations, public information and food safety, Browner, a 1993 Clinton appointee, reserved sharp criticism for Congress, which she held responsible for allowing key pieces of environmental legislation to get stale after Republicans took control in 1994.
Congress last revised the Clean Air Act in 1990 and the Clean Water Act in 1987. Superfund , the federal program that identifies and enforces the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites, received its last overhaul in 1986.
"When Congress has engaged, we have been well served," but lawmakers have demonstrated a clear "unwillingness to engage" since 1994, Browner said.
Browner also suggested that global warming become a top policy priority. "Climate change is not some distant challenge. . . . It is a reality," she said.
Calling for "modern, flexible laws that allow us to keep pace" with evolving environmental problems, Browner echoed the consensus of state officials who testified before a House panel last month on state-level environmental innovations .
Top environmental regulators from Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont told the National Economic Growth, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs subcommittee that they would need flexibility from both EPA and Congress to help them continue to achieve as frontline enforcers.
Browner discouraged generalizations that state agencies are competing in either a "race to the top" or a "race to the bottom" regarding the enforcement of environmental standards.
"They've all got different governors, they've got different legislatures, they've got different challenges. And that's why it's really important to sort of first look at what we should do nationally like car standards, safer drinking water standards and then engage on a state-by-state basis. Some of them don't have good state laws. Some of them have great laws ... So there's not a one-size-fits-all answer to the relationship with the states," Browner told stateline.org>