Douglas M. Costle: Oral History Interview
This publication is the fifth in a series of interviews of EPA leaders that includes William Ruckelshaus, Russell Train, Alvin Alm, and William Reilly. The EPA history program undertook this project to preserve, distill, and disseminate the main experiences and insights of the men and women who have led the Agency. EPA decision makers and staff, related government entities, the environmental community, scholars and the general public will all profit from these recollections.
Separately, each of the interviews will describe the perspectives of particular leaders. Collectively, these reminiscences will illustrate the dynamic nature of EPA's historic mission; the personalities and institutions which have shaped its outlook; the context of the times in which it operated; and some of the Agency's principal achievements and shortcomings.
The techniques used to prepare the EPA oral history series conform to the practices commonly observed by professional historians. The questions, submitted in advance, are broad and open-ended, and the answers are preserved on audio tape. Once transcripts of the recordings are completed, the History Program staff edits the manuscripts to improve clarity, factual accuracy, and logical progression. The finished manuscripts are then returned to the interviewees, who may alter the text to eliminate errors made during the transcription of the tapes, or during the editorial phase of preparation.
Douglas M. Costle (born July 27, 1939) served as the third Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency between 1977 and 1981. He spent his early years in Washington, D.C. During his teens in Seattle, Washington, he gained an appreciation for the pristine air and water then taken for granted in the magnificent Pacific Northwest. He attended Harvard University (BA in history, 1960) and law school at the University of Chicago (JD, 1963). In 1965 he married Elizabeth (Betsy) Rowe.
Punctuated by stints in the private sector in law offices and urban planning firms, his public service career included positions in the Departments of Justice and Interior, on the Ash Council, as Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, and at the Congressional Budget Office. He subsequently served as Dean of the Vermont Law School. He founded and chairs the Institute for Sustainable Communities, which focuses on building public and private environmental protection infrastructure in the eastern European countries of the former Soviet Union.
Mr. Costle resides in Woodstock, Vermont.
Early life and influences
Q: To begin with, I would like to get some background on your pre-EPA years. You worked on the Ash Council which created EPA, but I would suspect that your interests in environmental issues were already forming by the time you began working for the Council. Tell me about where you grew up and what or who some of your early influences were, prior to taking on environmental protection as a career.
MR. COSTLE: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and my early experiences there probably shaped my awareness of the need for environmental protection. I remember clean air and water. You could fish in almost any stream around the Seattle area.
Q: Did you fish?
MR. COSTLE: My dad and I fished near Mt. Saint Helen's, at Spirit Lake, in fact. I've done more since then, in Alaska, for instance. Fishing was one outdoor influence. Too many people today don't remember how environmental issues became part of the American political landscape. A handful of scientists had been ringing the alarm bell, and then the press picked up on it. The Cuyahoga River caught fire in Ohio. I remember a photograph on the front page of the New York Times captioned "The Skyline of New York." It was as if the negative was faulty, because the smog was so dense. Very few people could define the word "ecology." Now every school child can. There has been a profound change in our political value system. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, you almost took for granted that the air would remain clean and the water fishable and swimmable -- the goals stated in the '70 Clean Air Act and the '72 Clean Water Act.
Q: So the degradation that people were seeing by 1970 was, perhaps, a slow accumulation, but it became profoundly manifest in the late '60s.
MR. COSTLE: Exactly right. "Earth Day" in 1970 was a very significant political event, but its founders would tell you that they could never have organized it if the time wasn't right. In American political life, timing is everything.
Ash Council and creation of EPA
Q: You served as staff to the Ash Council, which created EPA. Who brought you onto the Ash Council?
MR. COSTLE: A friend named Amory Bradford, who had once run the New York Times and served in a variety of federal positions over the years. After law school in the '60s, I had joined the Department of Justice (DOJ) and been assigned to the Civil Rights Division. The previous summer, in '63, I had worked for Justice, with the FBI in Mississippi. I photographed public records and interviewed witnesses in the early suits over the use of literacy tests to disenfranchise blacks in the South. These suits led to the '65 Voting Rights Bill, which fundamentally changed Southern politics. I was just a young law clerk, and my only identification was a letter from Robert Kennedy saying I worked for the Department. This probably would have been enough to get me shot if I had ever had to show it to anybody. Right after the Watts riots and the Newark fires, Amory was with the Economic Development Administration (EDA) in the Department of Commerce, and he thought Oakland would be the next tinderbox. He wanted to take the jobs creation potential of the EDA to Oakland to see if that could make a difference. Then came the Ash Council.
Q: What were the purposes of the Ash Council, and what were the Nixon Administration responses to your proposals regarding EPA? The Council wasn't entirely successful, or at least many of its proposals didn't go through. Yours was one of the few that did.
MR. COSTLE: Basically, two proposals succeeded: the creation of OMB (Office of Management and Budget) and the Domestic Policy Council (DPC), and the creation of EPA. The Ash Council looked into making EPA part of a larger department and ultimately decided not to.
To give you some background on the Council, one of the first things that every president since Roosevelt has done when taking office is to set up some sort of commission to look at federal government organization. President Nixon's council, formally named the President's Advisory Council on Executive Organization, consisted mainly of very successful business people who ran large organizations. For example, Roy Ash, the chairman, was head of Litton Industries, a very large and successful firm that did a good deal of government contracting. The council members were concerned with consolidating the number of agencies that reported directly to the President. They believed the President needed a policy staff, because their perception was that Cabinet officers often became captive of the "iron triangle" of the executive, legislative, and lobbying communities, whose interests were not always those of the President. A White House staff that was a mixture of career policy specialists as well as the President's political staff would serve as a small think tank to help the President sort out policy debates and choose options.
The Bureau of the Budget didn't like this proposal because it had traditionally played this role, and the Cabinet didn't because the members saw themselves as the President's staff. They feared that the Ash Council's proposed Domestic Policy Council would interpose itself between themselves and the President.
In the midst of all this, Amory's staff was grappling with improving the organization of the government's myriad programs dealing with the environment, ranging from managing public lands to mineral leasing and extraction, anti-pollution programs, power generation, and the regulation of pesticides. These functions were scattered throughout the Departments of Interior to Agriculture to HEW (Health, Education and Welfare) and independent agencies. This executive branch fragmentation of authority was mirrored on Capitol Hill, among all its different committees and subcommittees. The Council's predisposition was to lump all these programs into one new cabinet department.
I was convinced that idea would not fly. First, it would require legislation, because the President's reorganization authority did not extend to creating new cabinet departments. Although Congress had to approve any plan to transfer programs from one department to another one already existing, such a plan would automatically go into effect unless Congress actually vetoed it. And the larger and more complicated the plan, the more likely a veto would occur. Second, no matter how neat, streamlined, and sensible a proposed plan might be, it would be torn into pieces on Capitol Hill by all the interest groups. While everybody talks about how protective the bureaucracy is about its turf, it's not basically the bureaucrats. In the end, the civil service does not have much power itself. Power lies with the Congress and the interest groups, often aided and abetted by the bureaucracy. Congress and the interests resist change because -- the minute power shifts -- loss of control or influence plays its way through the bureaucracy, the press, the political process. I remember the admonition: "If you send a racehorse up to Congress, it is sure to come back into the tent looking like a camel."
A reorganization plan, on the other hand, would not be subject to amendment. It had to be voted up or down as submitted. The Ash Council members, however -- being very smart businessmen but not necessarily smart Washington operators -- thought the logical step would be to combine all the federal environmental, energy, and land resource programs in one cabinet department, presumably Interior. This would be the first major Cabinet shake-up.
We staffers were instructed to brief each of the Cabinet members who would be affected, nine out of ten of whom would lose something. Each Cabinet officer made a pitch for placing the new entity in his own Department. Even the Army tried, saying, "The Corps of Engineers needs a new mission." But Russ Train, who had then just been named chairman of the new Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), was the first to argue that EPA ought to be independent. He believed that anything else would not be seen as a fulsome response to the growing public perception that environmental problems were getting out of hand and that a highly visible and focused response was required.
Roy Ash reasoned that the standard-setting and enforcement functions of an EPA really needed to be informed by all the Cabinet perspectives: urban, agricultural, commerce, health, natural resources. He toyed with the idea of a coordinating council and became persuaded that it just wouldn't work. The rule in Washington is that everybody wants to coordinate, but nobody wants to be coordinated. So the Ash Council endorsed the idea of a separate, independent EPA reporting to the President. They did not seriously consider a commission form like the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) or the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission), regulatory agencies set up primarily for the economic regulation of industry, which were as much creatures of Congress as of the Executive Branch.
Using a reorganization plan was brilliant, because necessitating a congressional veto changed the dynamics considerably. It meant Congress had to organize to defeat the plan within 60 days. In the end, Congress couldn't muster the opposition. Bill Ruckelshaus, who was then at Justice as an Assistant Attorney General, was named administrator one week before the EPA's effective date of December 2.
Organization of EPA
Q: Did you develop a relationship with Ruckelshaus and Train, before becoming EPA Administrator?
MR. COSTLE: Once the Ash Council delivered its recommendations, Russ became the point man on the Hill, and I in effect became his staff. I knew Senator Muskie and his people at that time, very casually.
I really remember this period as having a flavor of the New Deal about it. This was a new area of public policy, one where government intervention was clearly going to be required. Muskie, to his great credit, supported it because it was the right thing to do. He said, "I'll probably criticize you for not putting enough resources into it. But I'll help you get it through." And he did. He was a statesman, the likes of which there are too few today.
We looked at organizing EPA functionally, that is, around operations like research, enforcement, contracts, etc. But this would involve breaking up the traditional air and water organizations, and we didn't think that would be a practical alternative on Day One. There was likely to be high-level resistance on the Hill, particularly from the House, where it was a committee jurisdiction issue. John Blatnik had to see a water program. Paul Rogers and the Health Committee people had to see an air program. The Senate was easier to deal with in that respect, because it already had a more consolidated jurisdiction in the Senate Public Works Committee. But within EPA we did propose some cross-cutting functions that would begin the process of program integration, such as policy, research, and enforcement.
Our other organizational decision was to establish a very strong regional presence, using the ten standard federal regions to create a rational field structure for EPA.
Q: As you watched EPA develop after Ruckelshaus took office, and as former State EPA head in Connecticut, on the receiving end of what you had developed, how did your vision for the agency change -- or did it?
MR. COSTLE: EPA's initial focus was on the basic organic statutes that it inherited, essentially for air and water. But it was to a large extent in a state of crisis management. You could imagine what it must have been like during the New Deal, when the government was creating whole cloth out of new ideas, programs, law and infrastructure. There was a constant process of legislative innovation. Russ Train had a very strong operation at CEQ, with some extraordinarily bright and capable people like Al Alm, Terry Davies, and Bill Reilly. They saw themselves as a fountainhead for spinning off new ideas and legislative proposals.
Becoming EPA Administrator
Q: How did you become EPA Administrator?
MR. COSTLE: I know only some of the story. I went to Connecticut, helped set up and run that State's EPA, and eventually headed the whole Department. It was a consolidated agency, including the natural resources management functions as well as pollution control. Even though the EPA piece functioned separately, it began to draw strength from the fish and wildlife and water conservation people. We were definitely beneficiaries of the new federal grant-making authority. We were able to triple our staff and other resources.
The federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts clearly contemplated State implementation and enforcement. Those laws were brilliantly crafted to get results; their compromise was not in the goals or the standard-setting but in the time they would allow you. The Congressional authors calculated that, as this new pressure was applied to the economy, the safety valve would be in extending deadlines. They knew they had to be clear about the objectives, and they set a degree of specificity that no bureaucracy could mumble away.
But State implementation meant big changes for the States. For example, when I was heading the Connecticut EPA I knew that we couldn't run programs with engineers alone. We had to bring additional skills to bear: lawyers, economists, and communications. It was very exciting, actually, to build an operation where you were never more than an hour away from any problem. This proximity also gave us the advantage of quick feedback on where our proposals would work or not. But there was never any lack of resolve that things were going to change. We wanted to do so intelligently, and we wanted to innovate. We developed the administrative civil penalties program, a very clever concept for which Bill Drayton was the spearhead. Washington deals at an abstract level. In the States, you get down in the trenches with the 50 permits that you are going to issue to the State's largest manufacturing employer.
And you're dealing with the complexity of town governments. They will have to raise taxes. They will have to hold referenda -- and those get beat down periodically. I had threats from mayors to have their garbage trucks dump their loads on the governor's doorstep if I shut their landfills. We did shut some down, and trucks didn't come. But those were searing political experiences.
Those were also heady days. I would characterize that period of the '70s as an era of improvisation, and the state level as a wonderful place to get the experience of implementing a law. It wasn't just drafting a document and throwing it out for a policy debate, casting thy bread upon the waters to see how soggy it gets. We had to make the abstract work. To me, this represents a key principle of public service. It's not a political game. In the end, success is measured by getting something done that makes a difference for the public good.
In any event, here I had wound up, a Democrat working for a Republican Governor, a wonderful man named Tom Meskill, who was very supportive. Then a Democrat was elected Governor, and I got thrown out. I called Russ Train and asked, "Do you have any work that I could do while I figure out what I am going to do with my life?" At that instant, the chief environmental staffer retired from the Domestic Policy Council. Gerald Ford was now President, and Nelson Rockefeller was running the DPC, which the White House was actually trying to restore to the Ash Council's original conception. I agreed with Russ that I would fill the DPC seat while Jim Cannon, President Ford's chief of staff, was recruiting. So for several months I had the young policy wonk's dream, including access to the President.
At that same time, I met Alice Rivlin, a young economist from the Brookings Institute whose task was to set up the new Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Up until then, the federal budget would simply emerge at the end of a Congressional season. The green-eyeshades people at the Bureau of the Budget would add up all the appropriations, with no discussion of the larger context -- surplus or deficit -- and no focus on the out-year implications. Congress realized that it was at a disadvantage and needed the analytical capability to do its own budget analysis in order to keep the executive branch honest with the numbers. Senator Muskie and Representative Brock Adams pushed through the 1974 Budget Reform Act, creating the new Congressional House and Senate Budget Committees and the Congressional Budget Office. CBO was to develop policy options for the Congress, crunch the numbers, and prepare five-year projections for existing and proposed legislation. Alice was charged with setting all this up in a hurry. So I traded my White House access, office, and chauffeur service for a three-legged desk and a roof that leaked in the basement of the old Carroll Arms Hotel to help get CBO started. Then came the '76 election.
Early after Jimmy Carter had started running for the Presidency, he had set up a group, under Jack Watson, to plan the transition should they win. Stu Eizenstat worked with that group, as did Bill Drayton. Based on our Connecticut experience, Bill asked me to prepare a memorandum on EPA, from my perspective as a former state administrator. I remember making a very strong pitch for management, for people who understood these programs, had been involved in their development and implementation, and could tighten up the agency for another era of growth. With respect to rulemaking, I argued that EPA needed to better anticipate impacts and implementation problems.
After Jimmy Carter won, I got a call asking if I would join the transition team, working on government reorganization issues. I talked with Alice about the offer. By that time it was clear that the Congress, at that point, was only interested in numbers, not in policy options -- unless the options agreed with what the sponsor wanted. It was a testy business to get a Hill client to request a policy study of, for example, the space shuttle without also having him suggest the conclusions that were to come out. To her credit and because of her integrity, Alice would not play the game that way, so CBO did not. But I thought this new opportunity would be more exciting, so I left CBO for the transition team, not knowing what I was going to do afterwards.
The Carter transition team was organized into clusters, with one group working on appointments in the environment and energy area: the Departments of the Interior and Energy, CEQ, EPA, etc. Because I had administered a State agency, my name got on the list of EPA candidates. Cecil Andrus was picked for Interior, and Jim Schlesinger for Energy. One morning Cecil asked me to come see him, and we had a wonderful chat for about an hour. I knew he had already chosen his deputy and several key assistant secretaries, and I began to think this had to do with EPA, particularly when he asked if I thought EPA ought to be merged with Interior. I went through my litany of reasons why not. He said, "Good, I agree." I later learned my name was forwarded to the White House, basically because I was the only one of the final four candidates who had run anything sizable.
A short time later, I was asked to meet with Hamilton Jordan at the White House. He asked, "Could you see the President tomorrow?" I went in on a Saturday morning, and the President and I talked well beyond the scheduled 20 minutes. When I left, he said, "I want you to call me directly any time you need to. You should never feel that you can't get through to me. By the way, you'll have to fill out papers for the FBI."
In Ham's office, I told him, "I think I have just been offered a job, and I think it's EPA." Ham roared and said, "That's right."
I liked President Carter personally. He was very bright, a man who clearly was interested in how government worked. You sensed real integrity. He didn't know many details about EPA, but he felt very strongly that this area would be important to his Administration.
Carter Era at EPA
Q: What problems did you have with transition, going to EPA in a new administration, at a time of party change?
MR. COSTLE: I had an advantage in knowing the EPA players, Russ and Ruckelshaus, of course, and John Quarles, who was Acting Administrator, as well as the incumbent Assistant Administrators. I did not know the White House staff, the Jordans, Eizenstats, other Georgia people. The next layer down were largely from some very good Capitol Hill staffs, from Phil Hart's and Muskie's offices. The first thing I did was to see Bert Lance at OMB. OMB and EPA had been at perpetual loggerheads, largely because of the "Quality-of-Life" review set up by OMB. This process had meant, in effect, that everything EPA did had had to be cleared by OMB. I told Bert, "Congress has been placing more and more responsibility on EPA without giving additional resources. The administration did not allow it." With the help of Elliot Cutler, the new OMB assistant director for natural resources, and Kitty Schirmer, we worked out the first major increase in resources for EPA. It was a 15 or 20 percent jump in Carter's very first budget, a wonderful signal to the Agency and the public that environmental concerns were going to be taken seriously in this Administration.
I asked John Quarles about the Quality-of-Life review. He said, "It's awful. Why don't I just opt out and take the heat." John unilaterally stopped the review, with the collaboration of Elliot and Kitty.
President Carter had asked me to consider Barbara Blum as my Deputy. I wanted someone who could deal directly with his personal staff, based on long-standing relationships. EPA administrators rarely bring the President good news, but the White House is always being lobbied by everybody who is affected by the agency. When the Chairman of General Motors calls the White House, they take his call. So Barbara's appointment was good for us.
Ham said I could pick the Assistant Administrators. I probably had a freer hand than any administrator before or since. The overall result was that we had as strong a team as could have been recruited, then or now. It included Tom Jorling, who had written the Clean Water Act, and Dave Hawkins, one of the country's chief environmentalists, who was a specialist in Clean Air Act issues. I had already enlisted Bill Drayton, who had been working on EPA matters with the President's transition team.
For R&D (Research and Development), I decided to look hard inside, and tapped Steve Gage. He had been the EPA R&D representative who had served as liaison to the New England states at the time of the 1974 oil embargo, when proposals to site refineries on Long Island Sound had cropped up. He was very objective and thoughtful. He never winged it, but would say, "I don't know that answer; let me get it." We decided to beef up R&D, to introduce peer review, strengthen the outside Science Advisory Board, create research centers around the country, consolidate the EPA laboratories, and broaden the network of scientists the agency consulted.
By 1977, EPA was under a barrage of incoming mortar rounds. It was under a scientific assault that argued its standards were not solidly based. Some complained that the agency wasn't efficiently getting new programs out, others that it was ignoring the States. Industries were suing; every rulemaking got litigated. When I arrived, a stack of rules was sitting on my desk for signature. I told the agency's General Counsel that I wouldn't sign until I had read them, and he said, "You have no choice. You'll be in contempt of court." Eighty percent of those regulations were there because of either a legislative or court-ordered deadline. The remainder were largely negotiated, often to keep us out of court, or were rules that the parties had all agreed to. It was no wonder that EPA had acquired its reputation for lack of timeliness. The agency was suffering a bottleneck and had not gotten adequate new resources to handle the new laws passed every year.
Q: Some Administrators have used their Deputy as a sort of Mr. Inside. You chose to make Barbara Blum your White House contact.
MR. COSTLE: Barbara and I had agreed that we were going to rely on our very strong team of AAs (Assistant Administrators). She was very effective when we set up cross-agency teams to focus on complex issues. And she also handled a lot of the international work.
Q: Did you meet a lot of internal pressure or stymying to your program?
MR. COSTLE: No. Partly because there was a perception that the outside world was increasingly hostile toward EPA. There was reality behind the perception. Remember, the Nixon years had been years of budget impoundments, Quality-of-Life reviews, efforts to bottle up the agency. Pressure and frustration had been building. There was now a perception of a President and administration that would be sympathetic. People inside and outside the agency were looking for me to solve problems, to demonstrate to the Hill and elsewhere that we were attacking problems aggressively.
Early Objectives at EPA
Q: Is there any way to mitigate that period of lame-duck time, where the flow of paperwork continues, without it becoming a millstone around the next administrator's neck? Or is that just a natural thing that there's no way to fix?
MR. COSTLE: I think it's going to happen. Having been an administrator, I think the last thing you want to do is bag your successor by leaving ticking time bombs. On the other hand, there may be some things you feel it's urgent to do before you leave, because they are part and parcel of what you consider your administration to be about. Given EPA's always intense, full workload, some throttling down may take place, but inevitably it's still a busy place. You may be able to mitigate some of that. The earlier you know who your successor is, the earlier you can start working with that person. That can make transitions easier.
I had a clear first set of objectives: Recruit the AAs and stabilize the agency. Take charge of the flow so the staff felt that they weren't spinning their wheels. Get on top of the critical legislative battles over the '77 Clean Air and Clean Water Amendments. And cutting a budget deal that provided additional resources, even before I got there, served as a signal that our new team wasn't simply a boarding party.
Another of my goals was to continue to build the state government infrastructure. EPA could never be everywhere; we needed to leverage our limited resources. By 1977, it was clear that dealing with environmental problems would be an ongoing, steady government responsibility. Building the national infrastructure to cope with that was essential.
Q: In hindsight, could the agency have done anything to make your transition smoother?
MR. COSTLE: The Agency was terrific. John Quarles was terrific. If I asked for information, they served it up. The pending Clean Air Act Amendments were complicated, and we had to rapidly formulate an administration position. We were really forced to rely on the career staff. One thing I had learned in Connecticut was that career people are an extraordinary resource. You not only ignore this at your peril, but you are foolish in the extreme if you don't take advantage of their knowledge and understanding. You still have to bring leadership and, ultimately, your own public policy choices. But if you don't harness yourself to the agency and its skills right away, you lose. You have to ask the right questions. You will find some career people who have, for whatever reason, a rigid point of view. But I remember the agency being eager to help, and I was eager to have that help. Besides the budget increase, I had worked it out with President Carter that I would attend Cabinet meetings and be dealt in on key administration decisions from which Russ Train had been shut out. So the staff felt hopeful, and I think they were pleased with the caliber of AAs that we very quickly announced.
I recruited Steve Jellinek from CEQ to run the new Toxic Substances program. Along with the appointments of Drayton, Jorling, Hawkins and Gage, the signal to the career people was that this team had been on the barricades with them. Dealing with the agency internally is like dealing with the White House. It's a bank account on which you are always making withdrawals. Every day you send the White House bad news, so you'd better make healthy deposits along the way so you keep a positive balance in your account. The same with career staff: you are not going to get the best from people if you are beating up on them. They need to feel that you appreciate what they do, that you respect them for what they know and bring to the discussion. In return, they expect you to lead, to be decisive. They are not going to begrudge losing this or that bureaucratic battle as long as they think it's been a fair game.
My father-in-law had been one of FDR's (Franklin Delano Roosevelt's) young bright assistants. He told wonderful stories about the New Deal: the excitement, the fact of breaking new ground, the camaraderie, and the sense that what they were engaged in was of great national purpose. I think that EPA's first full decade was about as close to the spirit of the New Deal as you can come.
Q: So you had an FDR model?
MR. COSTLE: Not in any formal way. But I remember looking at resumes we were getting for the General Counsel's office. They'd knock your socks off. When talented people really want to do something like this, which usually involves some sacrifice, that's a terrific sign. Good people always have somewhere else they can go.
Role of Regional Administrators
Q: You had to place a lot of trust in your regional administrators.
MR. COSTLE: Yes. I wanted strong regional administrators, a mix of career and outside people. And President Carter also agreed it was time to break the glass ceiling, so we carefully searched for women with experience and capacity. The regional offices were wonderful training grounds. And we moved Deputy Assistant Administrators around to get experience in other media programs and begin to see the agency more as a whole.
Turning attitudes around on the Hill really worried me, because the bitterness and anger that I ran into during my confirmation interviews were palpable. Remember, we were dealing with the post-Watergate Congress, with many new members without federal experience, many more subcommittees, and a somewhat hostile attitude toward the Executive Branch. And at that point, Congress was at a stalemate on amendments to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. I recruited our legislative director, Chuck Warren, from Senator Javits' staff. We prepared a chart of appearances before Congress by Russ Train and his AAs. Wherever we displayed it, everybody grasped the extent of the interactions between EPA and the Congress. These became much more extensive with the House's reorganization, when it seemed like every member chaired some subcommittee, with each drawing a bead on EPA.
The truth was that the Agency was still innovating and improvising. This would never stop with the signing of a particular bill or regulation. Our understanding of the nature and scale of environmental problems is so much more sophisticated today than it was then. We hit EPA right at the time when its learning curve was coming right up against the political resistance curve.
Q: How would you characterize the relations between the regions and headquarters?
MR. COSTLE: There's always an inherent tension. You want the regions to be close to the States, to give the day-to-day attention to state programs that headquarters can't. But if you just turn all ten regions loose, you'd have chaos. So you always need a balance between national guidelines and enough flexibility to meet the problems in the field. Our innovation of RA (Regional Administrator)/State Agreements -- which required fifty programmatic, across-the-board renegotiations each year -- gave us a chance to recognize individual differences and priorities. I repeat, there will always be a certain tension, but it's how well you mange it that is important.
Vision for EPA
Q: How long did it take before the decisions coming across your desk bore a stamp of your vision of the agency, as opposed to being the legacy of previous policies?
MR. COSTLE: Probably two years. It takes time to influence that stream, because decisions work their way up over a considerable period of time. But this doesn't mean we didn't make an immediate imprint. We first identified the twelve most important, most controversial proposals and intercepted those to make sure we could shape them. But it wasn't until we had the first good regulatory calendar in place that we could set up a thorough review system that worked. By the time I left, I felt comfortable that there were no surprises in the pipeline. But this still didn't obviate day-to-day crisis management. This constant queuing of urgent matters can overwhelm your calendar if you're not careful. You have to fight to set priorities and ensure that the things you want to focus on get to you in a timely way.
Q: You certainly had some heavyweight Congressmen on your side, but you were then about to lose Senator Muskie, the environmental statesman who had been such an agency ally. How was your relationship with Congress?
MR. COSTLE: Personal interactions are important. My approach was to level with them. You want them to walk away from a meeting with the impression that they have dealt with somebody who is professional, thoughtful, who understands their problems. You have to invest time and energy. To a surprising extent, the enterprise is very personal.
Q: The '74 class in Congress was increasingly populistic. That tendency has only grown since that time. How did you handle the degree of populism and the sort of anti-bureaucratic tone that came in with it?
MR. COSTLE: You have to play straight. In the long run you gain by doing so. We worked very hard to build EPA's credibility. A regulatory agency cannot be partisan, and EPA had always had very strong bipartisan support. As the going got tougher, this was more and more important. Of course, we didn't win them all. We got beat up pretty good a couple of times on the Hill, and many times no amount of professionalism would have saved us. One example was the auto emissions issue. The auto industry was John Dingell's constituent, and he was going to protect it. But the caliber of our people, and the quality of the debate we tried to maintain, was such that we more than survived our watch.
That turned dramatically with Anne Burford and resulted in subsequent bipartisan legislation that put a straitjacket on EPA. In many ways, the agency lost its most important asset, its flexibility. That's why reforming EPA today is going to be tough. We are again in a polarized and very much more partisan environment. The notion of Congress giving the EPA Administrator flexibility to improvise is not popular. Congress today tends to specify detailed requirements without always knowing the consequences.
True, we never published a rule where we could honestly say we knew all the consequences in advance. But we always tried to build in enough flexibility so that we could use common sense in implementing down the line. For instance, we had to change the ozone standard. It had been based mainly on one study, which turned out to be flawed, but nobody wanted to touch the standard. The pressure from the Hill and environmental groups was extraordinary. Yet, I couldn't justify the standard on the evidence; it would have been more costly to our credibility. In the end, you govern by consensus. Every administrator is always going to be in the middle of a bull's eye and had better be concerned about credibility.
Q: It seems that the press is very important in that regard.
MR. COSTLE: When I became administrator, the national environmental press was represented by four publications: the Washington Star, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. I asked their reporters about finding a chief press officer, and they all basically told me the same thing: "You have somebody now who is really good, Marlin Fitzwater." He and I developed a wonderful working relationship. Every day he earned the respect of the press. He never permitted the agency to mislead or misrepresent.
Q: Did you ever find yourself using the press against Congress or trying to mobilize public perception?
MR. COSTLE: Never against individual members of Congress. But we did try to capture the high ground of public opinion. The press plays an absolutely critical role for the agency in our modern communications age. But you don't manage the press. You manage your own actions, with an awareness of how the public and the press are likely to perceive what you're doing. If the public doesn't know the issues, doesn't understand them, or isn't concerned about them, then you've got trouble. The other side of that coin is that you never run around yelling fire in a crowded theater. That's irresponsible. So did we use the press? Yes, in the sense of making sure the press knew what was going on.
One of the risks, obviously, is that press coverage can cause something to spin out of control. An example of that was the premature release of the Love Canal chromosome study, before it had been peer-reviewed. I think that directly contributed to the subsequent panic. Whose fault is that? The press? I can't say that. It was newsworthy. But whoever leaked the information in the first place was irresponsible.
Q: Do you think the press had the level of sophistication, at that time, to understand things like peer review?
MR. COSTLE: Perhaps some of the smaller papers didn't, but some did: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the former Washington Evening Star.
Q: Did you find yourself using the press, even in subtle ways, against the administration, or against some part of it such as OMB?
MR. COSTLE: I never looked at the press as an agent, because the press would never willingly be anybody's agent. If reporters thought you were trying to use them, it would be the fastest way I can think of to burn your bridges with them. My rule was that you are doing the public's business, and you do the maximum amount of it in public. Sometimes, of course, agency staff has to meet in private to decide what they are going to do. Those discussions need to be free and open, without fear of repercussion. But I felt that in the long run that doing the public's business in public view would serve EPA's interests. We might not make everybody happy, but we were trying to do our job, and we'd have to stand or fall on that.
Relations with OMB
Q: Were you ever frustrated by OMB not having to play by the same rules?
MR. COSTLE: Oh, sure. That makes OMB as tough as nails to deal with. But I have to say that, during my time there, EPA probably had more parity in bargaining than most other administrations have enjoyed.
Q: Because of your allies in OMB?
MR. COSTLE: Initially because of allies, but other things we did helped in the long run. For example, we were the first agency to volunteer for zero budgeting. The staff moaned, but I argued, "Think it through. We look at our base and set up a rational system for establishing priorities. We essentially take away OMB's role. I will be able to say to the President, 'After we have gone through this, are you going to let those little gremlins change and re-rank priorities?'" This is a somewhat over-simplified explanation, but it pretty accurately describes what actually happened. We basically won our battles.
Environment and the Economy
Q: How did you handle the economic realities of the recession, with people in industry and other public arenas saying that environmental regulation was strangling the economy?
MR. COSTLE: Much of that was overstated on their part. My approach was to assemble the best economic staff I could and take industry critics head-on. I asked Bill Drayton to do a study of the five most expensive rules that EPA had ever adopted. I wanted a comparison of agency forecasts of the likely expense of compliance with industry's forecasts and with the actual costs. The results were very interesting. In four of the five cases, both the government and industry had significantly overestimated the actual costs. In one case, both industry and government underestimated the costs by a magnitude. In the four cases where we overestimated, our costs were closer to reality than industry's. And where we both underestimated, again our figures were closer to actual costs.
But when you are prospectively estimating the impact of a proposed rule, you are dealing with models and assumptions. Reasonable people can disagree; people with an interest may deliberately disagree. Also, it is easier to estimate costs than benefits. Industry uses very conservative cost models that tend to produce larger numbers.
In estimating, if actual costs are less, you benefit. But the fact that you have used the conservative models gives credibility if the costs turn out to be lower. In some instances where there was going to be controversy over major rules, we had OMB and the White House convene the agencies involved to agree on models in advance, so there would be no subsequent argument about assumptions.
I believed that the most important thing was to get facts on the table. My motto is, "Facts are friendly." People with different political philosophies can come to the same problem and reach similar conclusions, unless they are ideologues.
The White House is never going to be able to do its own analytical homework. It would have to re-create the government to do so. On one of our biggest rulemakings, we went to the White House staff and decided on the models ahead of time. We got the other agencies -- DOE (Department of Energy), DOT (Department of Transportation), OMB, the Council of Economic Advisors and the Council on Wage and Price Stability -- to agree. As a result of this process, we were never vulnerable to lawsuits alleging that we had been told what decision to make.
One example of this came with the auto industry. Toward the end of the administration, foreign automakers were having Detroit for lunch. The five top company CEOs met with the President; I was the only regulator there. The automakers were seeking five specific forms of relief, including regulatory relief. One CEO said, "Mr. President, do you realize that twenty percent of the cost of every new car is the cost of meeting federal regulations?"
President Carter asked, "Is that so, Doug?"
I said, "It is, Mr. President, but you have to look at that number carefully. Eighty to eighty-five percent of it is the cost of meeting Congressionally-mandated fuel economy standards. If you were to add up all the health, safety and environmental requirements, it's about three percent of the cost. Some argue that figure is much too high; others that it's too low."
At that point, Lee Iacocca said, "Mr. President, the fact is, we blew it. The industry is making the wrong kind of cars. We let the imports steal our lunch. We need to retool, and we need to buy time to do so. We need relief, but I put regulatory relief fifth on a list of five." They moved on to discuss import quotas and other items. And that was that, but I knew when I said what I did that OMB wasn't going to contradict it, nor was the Council of Economic Advisors. Maintaining this level of credibility meant you had to be really conscientious about making sure your facts could stand up.
Q: How often did you find yourself standing up before the President, OMB or others, and saying, "But I can't do that, because Congress has mandated that I do something else?"
MR. COSTLE: By the time issues got to that level, we had worked very closely with the White House staff and others. You don't rub their faces in it. That's counterproductive. So the situation never came up in the way this question is framed. But personal relationships also make a huge difference. Over time, you build up trust, which becomes very important. I think it has made a difference to EPA throughout its history, with people like Ruckelshaus and Train, Bill Reilly and Lee Thomas and Carol Browner. You cannot ever afford to undercut somebody. It is one thing to win or lose on the merits. It is another to use shady methods or not do your homework. Once you lose your credibility, you're dead, absolutely dead.
Q: With regard to the White House and OMB, what were your perceptions of the Regulatory Analysis Review Group (RARG)?
MR. COSTLE: Presidents have a legitimate concern about how regulatory agencies behave. There were legitimate concerns about the cumulative effect of regulation. Regulation was becoming a bigger and bigger function of the federal government. Government no longer just defended us, built ships and flew planes. It told the private economy how to behave on certain matters, from child labor to environmental protection. And nowhere was there a single source that would tell what was coming down the road from the plethora of federal agencies, or what the cost might be.
Then there was the matter of coordination. Three or four different agencies regulated lead. Was there consistency in what OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and EPA were doing? Was OSHA cleaning up the factory floor only to push the lead out the smokestack into the ambient environment?
Although the issues were legitimate, the regulators themselves tended to see outside questioners as standing in the courthouse door. And, in fact, the White House under previous administrations had been largely unsympathetic to regulatory agencies. OMB had been used to create a choke point. In the Nixon years, the White House was very responsive to big business interests. That said, however, realize that business interests are going to make themselves heard in any White House. They have the clout to get an audience. How much sympathy they get is another matter. We were dealing with a White House that was more sympathetic to us than to the industry that was crabbing about us.
Q: On issues such as lead, did you try to win more coordinating authority for EPA? If you had three different agencies regulating in a particular area, did you see EPA as needing to be the primary agency on those issues?
MR. COSTLE: As I said, in Washington everyone wants to coordinate, but nobody wants to be coordinated. Neither industry nor environmental groups are averse to pitting one agency against another. I argued that the right way to answer legitimate questions was to have the regulators themselves advocate for competent reform. Rather than cede veto authority to the White House -- which was legally questionable and could lead to litigation -- I persuaded the White House to create a regulatory council, a forum in which the regulators themselves could address the issues. I further suggested that everybody develop a regulatory calendar, so that we would have a central place to learn what was coming down the road. So I viewed RARG as legitimate Presidential oversight.
I found that the RARG staff asked good questions; they were largely sympathetic. Even the economists realized we had a job to do. A major problem with the economics point of view is that it can easily be perverted into a prescription for doing nothing. In some respects, economics holds out false hopes of introducing a level of certainty that simply does not exist in reality. Nobody would argue against the use of cost/benefit analysis or quantitative risk assessment to help organize the limited data you usually have. But when it gives the false sense of security that decisions are certitudes rather than judgment calls, I think it serves ill purposes rather than good.
RARG's effect on rulemaking, if any, was probably to sharpen us up in doing our homework. We were never contravened. I always conceived of my job as representing the President, and I was never instructed to do anything different than what I was proposing. Of course, knowing RARG wasn't just a hit squad trying to throttle us made a huge difference between the way the Quality-of-Life review and RARG were perceived.
I also started the Interagency Regulatory Liaison Group (IRLG), involving EPA, FDA (Food and Drug Administration), OSHA, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). We analyzed all the research being done under the auspices of each of the agencies and discovered it was like a piece of Swiss cheese. There were important issues that none of us were looking at. We told OMB, "If you want better regulation, you'd better fund the science research." But OMB gummed the bullet; it didn't have the brass to tell NIH (National Institutes of Health) to start paying more attention to serving the regulators' needs.
Although it fell apart when Reagan took office, RARG was a worthy effort. The process was designed to create a cooperative environment among the regulators and to address issues, particularly economics, without the kind of political tension that had existed and has now emerged again.
One of the legitimate concerns that I and other regulators had with RARG was -- while it's one thing to deal with a Charlie Schultz, Fred Kahn or another broad-gauge, largely sympathetic person -- it's quite another to deal with an ideologue like a Dave Stockman. Whatever arguments the former might have had with basic statutes, they understood what was involved. More than anything they wanted to be assured we were using good judgment. There was, however, always the risk that a bureaucratic apparatus would rise up underneath and become arbitrary. Fred was once embarrassed when we found his staff just cutting and pasting industry comments and sending them to us on official letterhead.
With OMB, I think it is, and always has been, a power trip. OMB tells agency heads, "We've got the authority of the President to tell you that you can't do this." OMB staff work for the President, and do what -- they claim -- the President wants them to. But in reality, they create that. Agency heads always feel caught between OMB and the statutes, like the salami in the sandwich. Still, we had a better time of it than most, in that the OMB assistant director who had EPA oversight had had Hill environmental experience, on Muskie's staff. We also had allies like Kitty Schirmer on the Domestic Policy Council staff. Above all, we had a President who believed in what we were doing. But there's always a concern in the White House that EPA may do crazy things, a perception fed by industry and other people for their own purposes.
Q: Was that perception also generated in part by some of the early EPA staff? Lone Rangers whom people looked at as environmental fanatics?
MR. COSTLE: Industry and others, looking in from the outside, easily see hobgoblins where none exist. And the stakes were high. Opponents could afford to hire the best lobbyists and batteries of scientists. But I think industry attitudes began to change. More and more, industry accepted that EPA was here to stay.
Improvisation does not end when the ink dries on a new law or a new regulation. Laws are not written in stone, and EPA has to keep faith with the Congress. If we were going to carry any case for reform back to Congress, we had better be able to demonstrate a good-faith effort to implement the laws as written and have some empirical basis to suggest that there was a better way.
In sum, the Regulatory Council was set up to address what we all agreed were legitimate concerns: the cumulative burden of regulation, the cost-effectiveness of regulations, the coordination of regulatory interventions, and the quest for a better-articulated research program. Everybody bought into these objectives, whereas -- had the White House simply issued executive orders to the same effect -- the natural bureaucratic instinct on any agency's part, with its own constituencies and Congressional committees behind it, would have been to stiff them, to find a way around: resist, resist, resist.
Just sharing information was worth the effort. OSHA and FDA were trying some new things in rulemaking; so were we. Without the Council, we would have had no organized way of finding out what was working in other agencies that might work in EPA. To this day, I regret that the Reagan administration didn't bring in serious students of public administration, who would have seen the problems and how we tried to deal with them. I think in many ways the Reagan era wrecked the opportunity for real regulatory reform for a number of years, because future attempts would be perceived as regulatory retreat. In fact, President Bush's theme of regulatory relief was an unfortunate characterization that just polarized everybody. I believe that the problem persists today, only the polarizations and misconceptions are on the Congressional side rather than the executive.
EPA Legislative Involvement
Q: How important to your mission was crafting drafts of legislation during your tenure? Or did that happen?
MR. COSTLE: Oh, sure. If you have a relationship of trust with the Congress, they really want your input. You have to implement the law so, theoretically, you have a right to be at the drafting table. Again, it is a process of give-and-take. In our system, the legislative process at its best is even more give-and-take than is rulemaking.
Q: How much of the wording of TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act) and Superfund was EPA's and how much came from Congressional staffs?
MR. COSTLE: It's really hard to allocate. But the only time you worry is when you're not part of the process. Usually a member of Congress doesn't want to go with something that the agency says is nutty. At least, it used to be that way. Nowadays, the  Congress is altogether different.
On one level, I'm not surprised that efforts to undo environmental legislation bogged down this year . I think the new Republicans went way beyond any mandate they had. I really believe it has been tragic that such partisanship has taken over, and I think it's one reason that many of the moderates of both parties are leaving.
EPA and Science
Q: How did you deal with Congress about the debate over science between EPA and industry?
MR. COSTLE: After the 1977 battle over the Clean Air Act, it was clear that, if you couldn't get a friendly set of facts in front of the Congress, you couldn't ever get a healthy resolution of the debate. The '77 Amendments called for the auto industry to perform a ton of research, and the industry geared up to do defensive research. At the same time, funds for public-health-oriented research were diminishing. I worried about that trend and said, "What if we created a non-profit, independent institute to do emissions research? Then the next time we come around to reauthorizing the Act, there will be an independent, third-party source of facts."
Senator Muskie was not happy with that idea; he believed in his gut that the research ought to be government-funded. I was more worried that government was losing credibility in people's minds, so that its research wouldn't have the same clout as in the past. In the end, Muskie agreed, and we created the Health Effects Institute, with Archibald Cox as its first director. As the victim of the Watergate Saturday Night Massacre, Cox was probably the one name in the country that everybody knew who was considered to have integrity.
The Institute was created as a non-profit corporation, with the auto industry putting up half the money and us the other half. This approach has provided an effective arbiter of facts, and today you don't hear as much debate about that area. Everybody can argue about the policy options, and this is where the debate really ought to take place.
Q: Is this the same idea as the Environmental Institute that the came from the Ash Council?
MR. COSTLE: No, that was less science- and more policy-oriented, asking: "Are there other ways to skin this cat? Is command-and-control the right way to go?" It's clear to me that command-and-control was the right way to go initially. I don't think there is any doubt. Otherwise, we wouldn't be where we are today in terms of clean-up progress. You need only look at Eastern Europe to see where we might have been without environmental controls.
EPA Policy Development
Q: Who helped you craft those more flexible kinds of plans?
MR. COSTLE: Bill Drayton and his staff served as the intellectual sparkplug. Not that they could develop it full-blown out of a seashell; they had to work with the air and water people. Bill's job, in part, was to challenge.
In EPA's early days, the intellectual power was in the program offices. Gradually, it had become concentrated in the policy-planning shop. I wanted very strong AAs who could regenerate the original capabilities. But I told them, too, that while I wanted strong program offices, I was also going to have this other shop that was going to be just as tough. Out of that, we'd get a better, healthier debate.
It worked that way. It meant it was rougher for the AAs because they sometimes had to battle vigorously with their colleagues. But I was fortunate enough to be able to have Jodie Bernstein, our General Counsel, act as mediator for a lot of the debating.
Another trend that had crept into the Agency during its first years was that the lawyers had become a dominating influence. There was a tendency in the different legal shops to meddle in policy choices instead of hewing to roles as lawyers. I told them, "You're welcome in the policy debate, but you're lawyers first of all. You need to be the best, because we'll be forced to litigate every time we turn the corner. But I'm not going to let you take over the policy process." So we tried very hard to strengthen the media programs and to develop a very good economics and policy shop.
Q: As you crafted these policies that relied less on command-and-control, how did the environmental community respond?
MR. COSTLE: They were nervous and skeptical. But there was really nobody who would argue with Dave Hawkins' or Tom Jorling's environmental credentials.
The environmentalists are not always totally right. They are advocates. If you are a public administrator, your job is to balance legitimate competing interests. Overall, you're an advocate for the environment, but your decisions have got to be informed by a multiplicity of perspectives, within the confines of the law. Flexibility in the law can be an administrator's greatest friend -- the lack, his greatest enemy.
So the environmentalists knew their role was to advocate. They knew that General Motors and the steel industry were in there making their case with all the lawyering and science they could buy. But I think the environmentalists had been very clever in influencing Congress in drafting the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. They knew they could never match the resources of industry in research and dollars, so they put much of their focus on the process of rulemaking, and access to that process, in order to advocate.
In the end, though, neither the environmental nor the business community is accountable for results. The Agency is, and the Agency has to respect the facts and the law.
Significant Issues at EPA
Q: What were the biggest issues you dealt with as administrator?
MR. COSTLE: I think, first, the power plant standards were high-stakes poker for the whole administration. I am very proud of the way we handled that, and I think it made us all feel we knew something about public administration when we were done.
MR. COSTLE: Because within the Administration that was the cleanest debate on the merits on the record, and the least politicized. It was politicized on the Hill, but that was inevitable.
The ozone standard revision was very tough.
Responding to Love Canal and choosing the Oil Spill Contingency fund as the model for Superfund, because it allowed the government to take action and sort out the liability later. Getting Superfund through after the election, in a lame duck Congress, was no small accomplishment. There were some good, tough battles inside the Agency over how to implement Superfund. The Washington staff tended to prescribe how the entire program would be implemented. There was too little Washington appreciation, in my judgment, of the diversity of the problem. I think Superfund implementation has probably hurt EPA in the long run, because it was so Washington-focused. The irony was that Burford played right into that. But it would have been a tough statute for anybody to implement under the best of conditions, because it is a tough problem.
EPA and Politics
Q: Was there something inherent in the party politics, not just daily practical party politics -- something philosophical that perhaps led Democrats to look to more decentralized kinds of approaches, whereas Republicans took a more centralized approach during that late '70s, early '80s period?
MR. COSTLE: Leaving aside the question of Democratic or Republican philosophies, I will say this: Many times we would get petitions at headquarters for rulemaking from industry or environmental advocates, on the grounds that they would rather deal with EPA in a single setting in which they knew how to operate, i.e., Washington, rather than have to deal with 50 States. So I think if there is a bias towards centralized government in rulemaking, it is because the affected parties think it is to their advantage.
This may be changing today because of the generally low regard with which government is held in the public mind. The radical Republicans may have temporarily won the PR (Public Relations) wars, saying, "Government is bad and big government is worse. Federal government is the worst, and Washington is the source of all your problems." We are probably going to have to muddle through this stage until people realize that, if you didn't have federal government, you'd have to invent it. The States couldn't possibly set standards for the auto industry. They wouldn't know how to do it, nor would they have the technical resources. But for other issues -- and contrary to what some people argue today -- I think that the original conception of the Clean Air and Water Acts was strategically more clever than people acknowledge. The laws recognize that there are some things the States can do better, frontline enforcement being one of them.
TSCA and RCRA
Q: How would you characterize the Agency's implementation of TSCA and RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act)?
MR. COSTLE: Both were new laws, and I moved very shortly after I arrived to start implementing them. Tom Jorling was caught up with the '77 Congressional debates, as was Hawkins. Both the air and water bills jammed up, and our first big political crisis was breaking them free. But change, even with a willing bureaucracy, doesn't happen overnight. It is incremental; it takes time to imprint your styles and ideas.
About that time, Tom was headed back to Williams College, and Chris Beck, who had been Regional Administrator in Region II, became AA for Water. It was Chris who alerted me about Love Canal. He had dedicated a new research ship on the Great Lakes, and on his way back he stopped to take a look at what he termed "a little place called Love Canal." He called me that night and said, "Do we pull the plug and let this hang out, or do we try to control it?" I said, "Pull the plug. The sooner everybody knows about this, the better." And it just blew up.
Q: Looking back on it, would you have pulled the plug and let the media, without any sort of spin doctoring, do their thing on Love Canal?
MR. COSTLE: Would I try to spin it? I don't think so. I think this was an issue that the public needed to learn about from third-party sources. Remember, we were discovering the issue at the same time the public was. We knew that it would be a crisis. But it would also remind the American people that the Agency's mission wasn't just about flowers and ferns, that it was about public health.
I could feel the steel caucus and the utility people, their allies on the Hill, and everybody else gnawing at our heels. I said, "It's time to remind everybody what this is really all about." So I didn't try to spin doctor it.
The one thing that really bothered me was the leak of that chromosomal study, because I knew that it had not been peer reviewed, and it had to be. The study was leaked from the White House, not from us.
Although we never were in control of the way the story developed, I was all for getting it out. I think it was either Chris or I who said "ticking time bomb," and the phrase got picked up. Time published that wonderful cover that looked like a split photograph, with the upper part appearing normal and the bottom part a skull, the message being that what is lurking beneath the surface here, that we don't know about, would be very harmful.
Superfund and Toxic Substances
Q: So do you think Superfund legislation in general, and the Love Canal incident in particular, were net gains or net losses for EPA?
MR. COSTLE: I think it did a lot to force us all -- the Agency, the environmental community, business and industry -- to mature in our perspective of what many environmental problems are all about. There was a legacy out there. It is one thing to deal with gross pollution you can see, where rivers catch on fire, or there's a heavy plume from a smokestack. Everybody can visually understand that. What is much harder to understand is the ubiquitous presence of toxins in the environment, where you don't know what the long-term health effects or the mechanisms are. The ordinary, reasonable man using common sense would say our job is to reduce risk by reducing exposure and by making sure that we are not just simply creating new problems that we will have to deal with later.
I'll give you a graphic illustration. Steve Gage and his R&D people wanted to build an activated carbon filtration plant at our Cincinnati laboratory, which was EPA's major drinking water lab. They needed $40 million. That was a lot of money in those days. When I asked why, they said, "We've been sampling drinking water, using newer technologies of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. We can detect things now that we couldn't a while back. We have found over 700 synthetic organic chemicals in finished drinking water, of which eleven are either known or suspected carcinogens, based on animal studies. Well over 20 or 30 percent of these chemicals are relatively new inventions." That is, they were substances that hadn't existed 20 years earlier but were just showing up now in sediments.
I said, "Are you telling me that water is not safe to drink?" They said, "No. We don't know that. It will take several thousand mice, a team of technicians, and several years to analyze, chemical-by-chemical, and even then we don't have the methodology to determine what effects two or more of these chemicals interacting might produce, as opposed to each acting individually. By the same token, we are not telling you that the water is safe to drink. What we're telling you is that we don't know, and there is no scientific silver bullet that is going to give us the answer. So we want to build this laboratory to see how effectively it can strip these chemicals out of this water."
About that time, we had been having a real knock-down, drag-out fight with the American Waterworks Association, which was opposing the testing of drinking water. Water suppliers were afraid that, if they found high chemical levels, they would then be required to do something about it. Gage said, "We want to set up an activated carbon unit, treat the water, cost it out, and figure out how efficacious and costly the technology is, whether it is perhaps an affordable insurance policy against our ignorance on the larger question of whether this water is safe to drink." I immediately approved the project, even though it was a bit of a reach in the budget that year. The Reagan people canceled it, but I think EPA eventually went ahead with the testing.
This experience encapsulated for me the essence of the issues that this new generation of pollution control was going to encompass. Substances show up, not just in one place, but across many media -- air, water, land -- often simultaneously. The public health concern then becomes the total body burden: what exposure are you getting?
The experience also illustrated the dilemma with the science of risk assessment, which is both factually- and assumption-driven. It is driven as much by the assumptions that you incorporate in the risk models as it is by whatever numbers you can plug into those models. Either way, you are frequently going to be arguing about things over which reasonable men could disagree.
At the same time, we are saddled with a legal system which basically presumes that the framework for dealing with a problem is that there must be a number above which you are all right and below which you are in trouble. Since the laws are written largely by lawyers, the authors want a bright line for ease of enforcement and implementation. EPA is supposed to set a number that will both protect and reassure the public.
It is clear from examples like that of the drinking water that the odds are, the minute you pick a number, it is arguably wrong. I saw this phenomenon again in setting air standards. When we convened an outside panel of scientists to advise us on air standards, we had studies that were clustered all over the lot. Even if we had done another twenty studies, we would probably still be in the same position. We had finally drawn a band, with upper and lower limits somewhere within where we thought the standard ought to be set. We then had this independent panel of scientists look at the characterization studies and agree on the upper and lower bands. Then we set the standards within those bands.
This reflects the nature of dealing with what I characterized then as the chemical revolution, dealing with uncertainties about which people are going to disagree, and where anybody will be able to quarrel with whatever number we pick. Nonetheless, we have to reduce risk somehow by reducing exposure, so we have to start somewhere.
So what is the nature of our job? It is to use common sense to reduce risk by reducing exposure, to take a harder look at new substances before we introduce them into commerce. But let's not kid ourselves that we are smart enough to know how to draw the bright line, or that there is a single scientifically sound way to do that.
In some ways it was an intellectual coming-of-age for the Agency to find itself suddenly dealing with a different universe of problems. It was never intended that we would drift away from the original environmental quality-of-life issue, but we did become preoccupied with health concerns. I don't think we are going to get a good resolution of this quantitative risk assessment debate until we face up to the reality that what we are doing is reducing risk by reducing exposure. It is legitimate to look at the cost-effectiveness of the ways in which to do that. That requires the politics to follow the facts. It is when you try to make the facts stand for more than they do that you get into long-term problems of credibility.
EPA and the Public
Q: You seem to have a lot of faith in the idea that the common person, given the information, can make good choices.
MR. COSTLE: I think they can make common-sense, practical choices. That is always what it comes down to, anyway. I think that, if you do to people what they did to the people at Love Canal, with the leak of those unreviewed chromosome studies, you have put yourself in an impossible position. You have to get in early, to have the affected people participate in the process every step of the way. That is beginning to happen now with clean-ups at the old defense facilities at DOE, and it's working.
Q: You talk about common sense and also about the ambiguity of science. Yet, there is this deep sort of trust of science and technology in the American psyche. How do you grapple with that, or how did you, as a regulator? Or were you even aware of that?
MR. COSTLE: Every time we had to recalibrate a standard or set a new one, we faced this. You can't be in that business and not be aware of the uncertainties and ambiguities in the science. People tend to think science is hard and numerical and precise. It's not, particularly in the environmental area. But there is one way, and only one way, to deal with that, and that is just to be absolutely open and honest about the gray areas. Anyway you cut it, we're making judgments, social policy judgment calls, and we have to be willing to tolerate a certain level of intervention in the operation of a free market economy. We're forcing the internalization of externalities, and this must become a part of our economic decision-making. We're going to have to set some boundaries that will by nature be arbitrary. We can reduce the edge of the arbitrariness with research and with refinement of the science as we go along, but we are never going to get the kind of precision that we'd like. So we have either got to change our system for making these decisions, or we have got to live with this ambiguity. The cumulative effect of so many of these problems is gradual, and you can very easily reach a point of no return. That's what makes these problems so poignant.
I remember a group of scientists from Russia, China and the United States telling me, about 1978 or '79, that by the time they could definitively document global warming, it would be too late to implement preventive measures, so complicated was the job of tracking chemistry in the atmosphere and sorting out the impacts of man-induced climate change from normal weather variations over multi-year time periods. The only way I know to deal with such problems is to be straight up about what we know and what we don't.
Q: Does risk assessment help?
MR. COSTLE: I think it can help you organize what you know. And it can underline what you don't know, which may be more important in the ultimate judgment call than what you do. But it is just a tool to help organize our knowledge.
Q: Is that why you got into risk assessment?
MR. COSTLE: There was enormous pressure to come up with more rational defenses of the standards we were setting, and risk assessment was an emerging and promising tool. But I remember cautioning EPA scientists at the time not to put all our eggs in one basket, such as cancer risks. People would not understand risk assessment jargon, or numbers. That's why, for example, when I had to make a decision about diesel emissions, I refused to base that standard solely on cancer risks. I also looked at other reasons to worry about these emissions, such as effects on asthma. And across the board I urged the Agency to look at impacts on areas like gene structure, chromosomes, and reproductivity, in addition to cancer.
Q: Why was cancer such a huge issue?
MR. COSTLE: It was so immediately scary. Cancer statistics seemed to be going up. There had been press exposes about the rapid rise in cancer, from different causes, in different age groups. You had DES (Diethylstilbesterol) and thalidomide stories, reports of problems that are at first latent and only show up much later. That kind of publicity was guaranteed to panic people. Even if only some few panicked, however, it clearly concerned any reasonable person that maybe we -- society -- didn't know what we were doing. In a public health sense, if you wait until the bodies stack up, you have lost the game. In that way, environmental protection is more analogous to public health medicine than to curative medicine.
I think the public was also predisposed to see EPA as an actor in health issues in another respect. They understood the notion of voluntary versus involuntary exposure and risk. I experienced that very strongly as I talked to people during those years. Since saccharin was such a big debate then, I typically used a saccharin/sugar analogy to explain this concept. If a person goes to a restaurant and there is a bowl with both sugar and saccharin on the table, he knows about the controversy, and so he can choose. Where the public has a clear sense that they have a personal choice, they prefer to make it themselves. They don't want the government to do it for them.
On the other hand, that same person will walk out of the restaurant and breathe the air. In that case he can ask, "Why doesn't somebody protect me from this?" Or he'll drink tap water from the municipal supply and ask the same question. In high school chemistry, if you have a beaker of carbon tetrachloride, your science teacher can properly warn you that, if you inhale too much of the fumes, you'll keel over -- the effect is acute. However, nobody knows what the effect will be of drinking a quart of water containing two or three parts-per-million of carbon tet daily for forty years. There is no way our present science can give you such answers. Given such ambiguities, people worry. What is happening to my body? Why isn't the government protecting me?
So it becomes a much larger, more complicated debate, involving more than just the science. While the science itself is a friction point, the standard-setting process becomes an additional friction point for all the other uncertainties in public-policy making. In the end, everyone wants precision that is not there, and few people are willing to say flat out that this is a judgment call, and better safe than sorry. That is, if you can reduce risk by reducing exposure for a reasonable cost, do so because it makes more sense.
Of course, if you do this, you may make some mistakes. You may over-regulate. But if the choice is between that or waiting until you have another thalidomide incident, is that a price you're willing to pay? So you ask: What does a reasonably prudent person do in the face of scientific uncertainty? The answer is: You take reasonable precautions. That is the essence of many EPA decisions. But it is not, unfortunately, how most of these laws are written.
I was very impressed when Bill Reilly was able to establish the 33/50 program. This was do-able; you could get industry to agree voluntarily. You'd get progress in reductions, and EPA could focus on the next generation of controls that might be required, with a much more targeted scientific research effort. Whereas if the Agency had had to set standards for that list of chemicals case-by-case, nowhere near as much would have gotten done. In fact, voluntary reductions, economic swings, and the prices of energy and materials have done more to reduce exposure to chemicals in the environment than anything EPA has done or could do.
Q: Did cancer and human health concerns overshadow or in any way prevent your doing other things that you wanted to have been working on during your tenure?
MR. COSTLE: EPA activity is a learning curve. Nothing's instant. We were learning as we went along, and we really came to appreciate some things better in the third and fourth years. Our knowledge and sensitivity were forced quickly by events like Love Canal, and the realization that the tools we had to deal with such a situation were in fact very limited. And Love Canal was just one of these events. There was the Valley of the Drums, and the next dozen incidents, and the next hundred after that. I think I would have appreciated another few years to work on the research agenda.
Steve Gage wanted to create Centers of Excellence on human health, on ecology, on technology. These Centers would represent very focused programs. Essentially, EPA would say to a major university: We will support you to be the best intellectual center for ecological research that you can possibly be. You can spend half of your money however you want, to pursue excellence, to get the right people, and to build a research base. You'll create a national resource, on the model of the National Institutes. In return for our support, we want to buy half your time with some focused research that will help us solve regulatory problems that we need to address this year or the next or the following. We set aside almost half a billion dollars to start these Centers, but the Reagan administration canceled the program. I still think we were on the track to a very nicely articulated health effects research program that was appropriately balanced and less directed to chasing the chemical-of-the-week phenomenon, more systemically focused on identifying and solving longer-term needs.
So there were some frustrating areas of unfinished business when I left. Pursuing them would have probably been my first piece of advice to a new administrator.
Q: You mentioned that President Carter was an environmentalist, that you had an open door in his administration. Did you use it?
MR. COSTLE: You never use access frivolously, and I never found it necessary to take relatively small disagreements to the White House. And the administration in general knew the Agency had the President's support.
Q: You were having to delegate a lot of authority to the States. How did you handle that?
MR. COSTLE: Consider the gorilla-in-the-closet phenomenon. You want the gorilla to reside in the closet, and you want the players in the room to know he's in there. EPA was the gorilla; it had a strong role to play in providing fledgling state agencies and programs with a backbone that they could rely on while taking some potentially very unpopular actions on their own turf. And, of course, you have to look at the issue state-by-state, because that infrastructure was still evolving. It was well worth letting individual States have some running room. The federal law gave it to them for developing clean air implementation plans, and the administration of the water NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit program was a joint federal-state responsibility.
I believe that state delegation actually worked out pretty well. EPA could not put a cop on every corner, so the Agency had no choice but to beef up State programs, giving them tools, badgering them when necessary, but working with them, because they were going to get most of the on-the-ground work done. You'd have to ask others how we were perceived. But I do know, having been a State administrator, that I was generally sympathetic to their concerns. I think the Regional Administrators, a number of whom came from state and local backgrounds, shared that.
There was always the tension between headquarters and regions over who's really in charge. That tension is, I think, one of the calculated ambiguities about EPA's functioning. If you go one way or the other, you give up something either way. If you give the regions too much autonomy, you may have chaotic variations among regions in terms of implementing the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act. On the other hand, if you retain all authority in headquarters, you aren't going to get practical implementation and feedback. Central retention causes people in windowless Washington offices to try to solve problems by remote control, and that is not a healthy situation. So you disperse and delegate, and hope for healthy cooperation and interaction.
As I have said, it was a time of improvisation and accommodation. As you work out specific problems, you learn, and then you can generalize. Towards the end of my term, we proposed a bill that would allow the States to take twenty percent of their federal grants and reprogram them to reflect the fact that, for example, in Connecticut some of your concerns might be different than in Idaho or Arkansas, and you could address them. You need that flexibility in the application of part of your resources.
Maybe a State's greatest priority was the loss of wetlands; or maybe the state agency wanted to invest twenty percent of its federal program funding in public education programs. We didn't have any doubt the monies would be well spent. I think in that respect, the Agency was a strong proponent of State programs. Anyway, the flexibility proposal was shot down on the Hill.
But we tried, wanting to reward and encourage States that were being progressive. But it's tough. EPA had to be sensitive to the distinction between nurturing on the one hand and patronizing on the other. You know there are going to be strong state programs and poor state programs. Where you have good people trying to do a good job, the challenge is to help them, to give them the flexibility to be creative. This principle applies just as much within the Agency as with the States.
Q: Was that a hard message to get across inside the Agency?
MR. COSTLE: It can be hard in Washington. Headquarters people tend to be more isolated from the field and from problems involving day-to-day give and take. While they are no less dedicated and concerned about real environmental progress, the tools they have to effect that are limited. Their perspective is necessarily limited, because they have to try to solve problems by remote control. That's a problem with any bureaucracy.
Q: Is that a solvable problem, or one that just has to be accepted?
MR. COSTLE: To some extent, it's just one of the givens. But there are things that can be done. One way to address it is by rotating people in and out of Headquarters, regions and States. We were fairly free in granting people IPAs [Interagency Personnel Agreement assignments], where they could go to work for a state or local agency for a year or two and then return to EPA with the experience and perspective they had gained.
Q: What other problems did you face in trying to deal with the States in implementing new laws?
MR. COSTLE: Some programs were easier than others to implement. For example, we were getting along faster and further with NPDES than we were with many of the air quality activities. Many of the problems, I think, were inherent in the design of the statutes and the programs themselves. The water program, for instance, was more mature, as were water pollution control technologies. And the reality is that there were some hard problems out there, and there was no mold, no cookie cutter, for much of what EPA had to do. EPA has had a tremendous challenge as an agency. I think the continuity the Agency has had in leadership -- despite one rocky period -- has been more important than any single law, policy, or individual administrator during its history.
Q: And is that what States need most: continuity?
MR. COSTLE: I think what they need most, in most instances -- and what they most appreciate -- is probably the same operating principle as business seeks. "Give me a red light or a green light. But not a flashing yellow; that drives me crazy." Make a decision, and understand that time is money and resources. In a free market economy, that is literally truth. Delays in getting decisions can be terribly expensive for everybody involved, and that wins you few friends.
Q: Does science make that problem of delay more difficult?
MR. COSTLE: It certainly does; that is the nature of the beast. But in most instances where you are dealing with a State program, it does not involve a debate about science. It is a debate about a permit or a standard or an air quality criteria document or something similar. The States make a decision based on the information they have; they don't pretend to be able to do the back-up research. Occasionally, they'd like to have help from EPA to do specific studies, for example, on what effect is likely to result from allowing a particular permit in a particular watershed.
One of the best mini-programs we undertook in Connecticut was to set aside a small amount of money for special studies. We would get a permit application, for instance, to fill in a wetland and would put a little funding into a hydrological study. Two cases I remember vividly. One involved the New Haven Airport, which was located in a neighboring town in a wetland area surrounded by a business district. That wetland area was the only developable area in that part of the town; the rest was all residential. The tax base was dying, and the town proposed a new industrial park to increase its industrial tax base. It was a classic environmental conflict, protecting this useless-looking wetland from a development that would create jobs in a declining local economy.
Using our set-aside money, we did a quick hydrological study and determined that the wetland had no redeeming value in terms of wildlife habitat, which was the basis for protection cited by the local wetland preservationists. But interestingly enough, that unimpressive wetland played a very important hydrological role in terms of flooding. If the wrong part were filled in for the industrial park, this would create the need for about $30 or $40 million worth of flood control projects downstream. We were able to determine that there was a place downstream where a smaller industrial park could be sited so as not to compromise the hydrologic function of that particular wetland. So we were able to have our cake and eat it too. But it took that modest investment of research funds to discover that.
In the other instance, residents wanted to repair a deteriorating dam on a man-made lake that had basically served a summer resort area. The water level had fallen and people were having to build their docks out. They were seeking a permit to rebuild the dam and refill the lake. A study funded from that small set-aside showed that this course would result in eutrophication of the lake. The water flowing over the broken dam was actually cleaning out the pollution from the septic tanks serving what had once been only summer cottages. What was really needed was to sewer the area to accommodate the now-year-round residents. Our State people had to argue with EPA to apply a portion of our federal funding to the sewering, but we succeeded because we had the study data to show the water quality benefits. Again, this demonstrates the value of having the flexibility and resources to address the specific problem. All the States need this, and EPA needs to let them exercise it.
I'd like to think that we didn't beat up on the States too much, but that we kept the right amount of pressure on them and on ourselves. While in the end we always had the option of cracking down, I could tell the Agency to stay out of their hair where the State people were doing a good job. When they know what they're doing, just hold them to some performance standards. To do this, we developed the State/Regional Administrator agreements. Basically, each Regional Administrator would negotiate a master agreement with each State in the region, so that everybody would be singing out of the same hymn book in terms of priorities, allocation of funds, performance measures, etc. I think these agreements did have the salutary effect of putting relationships in slightly more formal terms. This gave the States a sense of bargaining power, too.
Q: How did EPA relate to the Judiciary?
MR. COSTLE: On balance this relationship was very positive. Courts generally sustained our actions and our efforts to implement the law. There was a negative aspect in that court decisions could undermine our resource allocation process. Court rulings often reordered priorities. We would have to shift resources to respond to court orders, lest we be held in contempt. While this could be a negative, it was also really a sign that the Agency was understaffed, its resources not adequate.
The tougher question is whether you ever can have adequate resources. EPA's mission is difficult under the best of circumstances, but the Agency clearly couldn't do everything that Congress had told it to do in the time in which Congress told it to. We often felt that we were just one step ahead of the judge. We were always being sued. I often worried about the possibility of a contempt citation, particularly where rulemaking was constantly delayed, as in the case of many of the RCRA rules. There the judge was on the verge of telling the Agency how to spend its money, and at the same time OMB was trying to cut the amount we could spend. Our General Counsel, Jodie Bernstein, time and again got us out of jams on timing issues. The truth is, we just had more to do than we had resources or time to do -- and do well.
One step we did take to become more focused and produce better products in a more timely way was to set up the regulatory calendar I already mentioned, to show us what was emerging up to three years ahead of time. This allowed me to decide where I wanted to opt in, so that the Administrator's office wouldn't be at the tail end of the rulemaking process. Being able to look ahead like this also gave us a timely way to look at regulatory alternatives. Initially, we weren't anywhere near the level of sophistication to talk in terms of a regulatory budget. But at least we had a more reliable way of seeing what was coming, instead of waiting until the truck driver hit the horn just before we felt the impact.
Q: I've heard of EPA employees leaking information to the environmental community so that that community could sue EPA, thus helping the Agency get what it wanted, e.g., from the Hill or within the administration. Is that a fair characterization of some things that went on?
MR. COSTLE: I'm sure it happened. I think it is probably equally true of information leaked to industry. You could never keep a secret at EPA, and it wasn't worth trying. But I made it clear I never wanted to catch anybody at it. By the same token, it was a waste of time trying to stop all that. We assumed that we were going to be sued by both sides, no matter what. Perhaps such leaks gave some groups a heads-up as to what was coming. But I don't think we ever got into any trouble that we wouldn't have been in anyway.
Q: What were the most significant judicial influences on the Agency?
MR. COSTLE: The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had initial jurisdiction over much of the rulemaking, was certainly one. But overall the courts really did vindicate most of the Agency's actions. We had a very good track record in terms of the quality of the cases we argued, the quality of the appeals, and the results.
We were in a position to hire the best and the brightest in the legal profession, and did. And while we had a first-rate legal team, ultimately the Department of Justice represented us. [Assistant Attorney General] Jim Moorman really built up the DOJ litigation capability. And in many cases, we were co-counsel, in effect. On appellate work, we played a major role in fashioning briefs. And the quality of our work made it much easier for DOJ to do its job.
Q: How did EPA gauge its effectiveness during your administration?
MR. COSTLE: In EPA's earliest years, the measure had necessarily been: get the policy out; get the rule out. Everyone assumed that assessment was getting done elsewhere. The focus was on fire-fighting, not on evaluation. In our turn, we had some healthy internal debates about how to measure performance. There were those who wanted to do so with various forms of bean counting. That can be helpful. It can be important to know that you only filed sixty percent of the cases this year that you did last year. But why? Such counting helps you to ask some of the right questions. But you can't really measure total performance that way, because mere counting may not be the relevant yardstick. Ultimately, of course, it's whether the air and water are cleaner, at a reasonable cost. But determining that is a long-term process, which demands its own set of measurement criteria.
At the time, however, I at least wanted to gather some anecdotes that would illustrate to people that many of the problems we were addressing were solvable. We developed a series of case studies in the water office that, while anecdotal, showed that indeed water quality was improving. That was important ammunition to have when we went to Congress.
Q: Why was it so difficult to convince the Agency that it needed to devote resources to gathering that kind of information?
MR. COSTLE: Several reasons. The pressure of immediate deadlines, the desire to focus on the future, perhaps an apprehension that investigation would uncover deficiencies. And, of course, the perceived drain on our scarce resources of time and money. But I still think that such evaluations would improve the performance of government. The purpose is not to say that so-and-so messed up, but to see -- if a program is not working -- why it isn't, and what can be done.
But there were any number of meetings and hearings that I just felt were wasted. Perhaps the most egregious example was the last appropriations hearing in the Senate that Senator Proxmire chaired. He opened by saying that we would cover EPA in an hour, and then spent fully a half-hour interrogating me about the amount of overtime that Bill Drayton's driver had. This overtime occurring, mind you, during the height of the budget season, when Bill was the Agency's point man negotiating with OMB. The Senator spent five minutes on a $400 million R&D budget. I was really irritated and told him, "This is ludicrous."
Q: Were there any particularly effective managers or management styles that you saw in operation?
MR. COSTLE: I have seen a lot of different management styles work in different contexts. For instance, Dave Hawkins was very effective, but his style was entirely different from Tom Jorling's -- which was also very effective. Tom led by being a very dynamic, charging person, and people just wanted to be around that bright light. There was an intensity about it. David was much more cerebral, laid-back, but he brought about fundamental re-thinking in the air program. Two totally different styles and both equally effective. So I don't think there is any one style.
I do think that administrators at that level of government have to be very conscious of managing their time. You have to understand the competing demands on your time, and you have to make choices. The more thoughtful you can be about that before you suddenly find yourself on the fast track, the better off you are. It's pretty hard to set priorities as you go along daily.
I had to force myself, rigorously, to say, "What do I want to be able to point to a year from now as an accomplishment? I am going to get my share of crises and midnight oil. But are there systematic things I want to get done, and how do I measure my own progress?" Each year I would write a note to myself, setting my goals out. Then at the end of the year I would review it and say, "I didn't get that one done; I did better than I thought on this one."
This became something I felt even more strongly about as time went on, because of the competing demands on my time. It is not enough to be just a good manager who hires good people and turns them loose. Government service is not like that. You have got to build time into nurturing your relationships with the White House, OMB, the rest of the executive branch. You have got to have enough time for the Hill. You have got to have time to get out and explain to the hundreds of interest groups what you are trying to do.
It is really almost a hopelessly large job to do really well. Not only do you need a real sense of discipline about your time; your assistant administrators need to have the same kind of disciplined focus. Every year, I'd sit down with each of them and ask, "What do you want to get done this year? What are the foreseeable crises going to be? What role do you want me to play?"
I make this sound much more orderly now than it was but, actually, underneath all the surface crises, there was a fair amount of that structure. I had learned this management focus at the State level, but it was a whole different world at the federal level. After I had spent a half-hour with a State senator, we would develop a relationship. You can't do that with a member of Congress, or with the number of members that you have to deal with. Washington imposes a much more institutional, formal set of relationships that takes much more work.
Q: You would create short-term or ad hoc work groups. What role did they play in your administration, first of all? Second, do they or can they take the place of reorganization?
MR. COSTLE: They certainly can. If you really want to change thinking, then you have got to find a way to include the permanent bureaucracy. But you need to create an environment that forces them to consider other ideas and ways of doing things. We often used the Science Advisory Board for that. Once the internal staff came to realize that they weren't expected to have all the answers and that they could get help from other people, it was -- I think -- liberating.
You can't run a government by ad hocracy, but there is going to be a certain amount of ad hocracy in every successful government. Many problems cut across jurisdictional lines, and you need an ad hoc group to deal with them. I think structured outside advice is a great tool. But you have got to be careful in seeking it. You can't strip agency staff of their sense of ownership or of responsibility. It is how you seek advice that matters as much as anything. I thought the more of a reputation EPA got for consulting widely, the better. It would provide an antidote to EPA's growing reputation as a very insular bureaucracy. I felt that we could not afford this. We had to be, and to be seen to be, open and flexible and receptive to other ideas. We were still going to be criticized; there was no way to avoid it. But I thought that a very important antidote to that criticism was to reach out and talk to people.
Science Advisory Board
Q: And the Science Advisory Board (SAB) played that function?
MR. COSTLE: Very much so. I had a wonderful man running that, Dick Dowd, whom I had originally met in Connecticut. Dick was one of those rare scientists who could explain the most complex scientific issues in language that everybody could understand, and do so in an intellectually honest way. He had a genuine sense of humility. Everybody thought of him as a very important resource and potential ally. I always knew I could turn to him in a crunch, and get really good, solid advice. Steve Gage was that way, too. Steve had actually served on a nuclear submarine and had taught classes for converting nuclear engineers to civilian power plant operators. Dick was a high-energy physicist by training.
Dick and Steve proved their value continuously, not just to me but to other government officials. I remember when Peter Bradford and Victor Delinsky, from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, came over and said, "We have this incident at Three Mile Island that you ought to know about." I asked Dick and Steve what they thought had happened. Simultaneously they told me that there had probably been a disintegration in the core, and hydrogen gas was building up. That was exactly the case. During this entire event, by the way, EPA's role was primarily to monitor the ambient atmosphere for any signs of radioactive leakage. Thank God, the container held. But being able to pinpoint the scientific and technological facts, and give a precise assessment of potential effects, severity, etc., is only one illustration of their value, as scientists and as advisors.
Q: What about your relationship to the general scientific community, outside the Science Advisory Board and ORD (Office of Research and Development)?
MR. COSTLE: The SAB was my most effective way of connecting with the outside science community. But we also set up ad hoc committees to provide vehicles for addressing specific issues. When I wanted outside advice, for example, about air quality standards, we could convene five or six of the best scientists in the country and talk it over. They would review the studies, and I was able to interrogate them. "If we set the standard here, would you be comfortable? Why, or why not?" With the ozone standard, for instance, once I knew that the leading scientists were comfortable that we had defined the range, the upper and lower bounds, adequately, I then felt on defensible ground in setting the standard within that boundary. That might still leave a $1 or $2 billion difference in cost between the upper and lower bounds. That had to be viewed within the architecture of the Clean Air Act, which requires EPA to build in an adequate margin of safety. How do you define that? Interesting issues, and challenging to puzzle over. It was also a pleasure to have very bright people around to help you think it through.
ORD and Labs
Q: You and Al Alm have both pointed out that EPA had a tremendous economic analysis capacity. Do you feel the same way about its scientific capacity, its ORD and lab programs?
MR. COSTLE: I think it was more uneven. Agency research presents a very interesting set of issues. One of the debates the Ash Council had had was over how much direct science research responsibility EPA should have. There was so much relevant research going on throughout government that was arguably environmentally related. For example, studies of wind-blown soil in the Agriculture Department had direct relevance to air transport of pesticides.
There was too much of such related research to collar each piece and bring it into EPA. Roy Ash felt strongly, and the rest of the Council basically agreed, that you had to start with: 1) enough research competence at EPA to know where the outside research was being done, whether in academia or in the government, and 2) sufficient expertise in-house to appreciate the value and quality and quantity of that research. EPA's role would be to act as a kind of wheel to balance that research, spot holes and vacuums, and essentially piece together a holistic approach, recognizing that all the research work would not be done at EPA. I think the Council members underestimated the difficulty of one government agency telling another what to do or what to research. And they clearly underestimated OMB's unwillingness to fund environmental or regulatory-related research. So EPA started out essentially with a minimal scientific organization and a huge regulatory assignment.
There has always been something of a tension between the scientists who want to study next year's problem and the rulemakers, who want an answer right now about this or that issue. As a partial counter, there has always been a certain amount of scientific skill within the program offices. But ORD always had the responsibility, for example, for preparing the air criteria documents and for funding the major studies. I would have liked to have seen a much more generous ORD base in the agency. But unfortunately, one of the first things that gets sacrificed in tight budget times is ORD money. And, by the time President Carter came in, federal budgets were already beginning to shrink.
When you have a court order or a legislative deadline to have a certain rule out in 180 days, your money is going to go to that before it goes to doing research -- which may conclude that you've been looking at the wrong problem all along. Some of this dilemma is solved as our wisdom accumulates. We get better about asking the right questions, targeting R&D dollars. But I think there is probably a need to reexamine how and what research EPA conducts.
The Agency has suffered from the historical ambivalence about its science responsibilities, going back to the Ash Council deliberations. How big a science base does EPA need? It can't have everything, because there's too much scattered around that's relevant. Not only couldn't you consolidate it all, but maybe you want much of it being done elsewhere, where it can perhaps better influence other agencies in their thinking about problems. You want the Agriculture Department to be concerned about air pollution; you want it doing certain of the studies.
So EPA was cast as the balance wheel. I've always thought the Agency needs a stronger science base of its own, but I don't think it necessarily has to be done in in-house labs. It could be conducted in intellectual centers around the country, in universities, for example. But we need to be improving the quality and range and scope of environmental science overall. There's plenty of room for experimentation in terms of institutional arrangements.
I also think that other factors affect EPA's science. Obviously, the resource base is a very important constraint. Another obvious constraint is the tension between the need for short-term results to help the regulatory policymaker make a decision this month, versus longer-term research that, hopefully, will identify what environmental problems the Agency should be worried about four and eight years or longer from now. That tension between the long-term and the short-term fire fighting is just inherent, and you can't do much to stop it. These notions of splitting research off from the Agency, of having a separate science agency, I think would not help at all.
The underlying problem is the nature of the science: trying to get certainty from science, when the science isn't advanced enough to yield it. Meanwhile, you have this public demand for action, so balancing the two is very important. The approach must be a public health approach, which means you don't want to wait. If you delay until dead bodies pile up, you've blown it. That's a mistake you don't want to make as a society.
I always thought that part of the solution was having independent research centers -- on the lines of NIH. They should be subsidized to grow and, ideally, become great institutions, whether they were university-affiliated or not. From them -- perhaps as a quid pro quo for funding -- EPA could buy targeted research and pose certain questions for rapid responses. That would be preferable, I believe, to trying to build a national lab, which may take on a life of its own and may not be all that helpful. Today, when you think about it, the reality is that there is much more environmental research going on than ever before, and EPA has an even harder job keeping track of it.
Q: In part because EPA is buying research time?
MR. COSTLE: EPA has to be smart about how it buys science and smart about how it leverages such purchases to maximize its knowledge. Environmental research is a field in which the more, the merrier. The more people doing it, the better, as long as there is some sort of overall discipline about methodology and peer review.
I never agreed with those who maintain that you can't mix science and cops. I can understand all the problems associated with doing that. But the cops aren't going to be reasonable if they are not held back a little by the scientists. Likewise, the scientists aren't necessarily going to look at the right issues if the cops aren't demanding answers to their immediate needs. And ultimately, you need to be able to turn some part of EPA's cop/scientist resources loose to think about the future. That's hard to do in tight budget times.
Q: Pragmatically, would it be worth it, do you think, if you were facing a tight budget, to invest in people who are thinking ten years down the road? Or could private industry, on its own, perhaps develop that capacity?
MR. COSTLE: Private industry, basically, will not develop the problem identification capacity, because they are not in the business of giving themselves a hot foot. So they are generally not going to be looking out longer-term to determine what is going to be expected of them five or ten years out -- unless, that is, they are exceptionally well-managed companies. During the Clinton transition, I advised the incoming administration: In Year One, go identify and evaluate all the research needs you can, and define the agenda for five years out. Then launch that research, because what comes out of that will dominate the public agenda. If you really want some control over that agenda, start that research right away; otherwise, you'll never get past the mode of crisis manager.
Q: You identify the research needs and start down that track with part of your team. What else do you do in Year One?
MR. COSTLE: Obviously, that depends on where the Agency is when you get there and on what you inherit. Today that answer would probably be different than it was when I arrived. As the administrator, you have to make some early decisions about your priorities. Then you have to discipline yourself to address them. That means you have to build your relationships with the White House and the Executive Branch. You have to build your relationships with Congress. You have to become familiar with the organized interest groups that are going to affect your ability to do your job, and let them become familiar with you and the principles upon which you intend to make decisions. You have to spend quality time inside the agency, so that staff learns your priorities. By and large the Agency staff wants to be helpful. They want you to succeed, but they can't help if you can't tell them what you expect from them. That's a tall order.
In our case, that initial process was flushed out by a number of specifics. We wanted the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts cleared from the Hill by August. This was our major legislative opportunity to shape the organic statutes that we administered, that would guide the next several years of environmental protection efforts in this country.
Setting Goals at EPA
Q: Is there a window of opportunity in that first year that you either exploit or risk losing altogether?
MR. COSTLE: Absolutely, just as it is with Presidents. Right after a new administration is elected, you will get a benefit-of-the-doubt that you'll never get again. It will diminish. You'll never have more flexibility than you have early on, so it is very important to know what you want to do. If you don't set objectives, you can spend four years coping. External events will then basically determine what you spend your time on. You may be a good administrator in that set of circumstances, but you are going to walk away feeling like that adage about the Chinese meal -- you are hungry again in an hour.
Q: Is there a reasonable expectation about what you can accomplish as an administrator? Obviously, you can bite off more than you can chew. Is there any sort of wisdom that you could provide about what is reasonable to expect?
MR. COSTLE: You have to believe that, like Sisyphus, you can push that boulder up the hill. Any number of things will conspire to frustrate your ability to accomplish your goals. You may underestimate the energy and time it is going to take you to get from A to B. But if you go in assuming that you are not going to get there, and you are going to settle for some indeterminate point in between, you might as well not do it. You won't be able to mobilize the energy and talent of the Agency to accomplish a set of goals. If you believe in the goals that Congress has given the Agency, you have got to believe that you can make measurable, tangible progress toward them. If you don't believe that you can motivate the Agency and organize it to get that done, nobody else is gong to believe it either.
That doesn't mean you have to go in with a naive perspective. That is why I say setting achievable goals is important. It's a fine balance. You don't set the bar too high because that frustrates people, but you have to set it high enough to challenge people to achieve more than they think they can.
I think the worst situation is where you take a job like that and you wander in saying, "What's in the in-box today?" That is deadly, because you'll never get out of the in-box mentality. You'll always be perceived as the boarding party, and everybody will be out to capture you, rather than trying to get your goals accomplished. The job of a public administrator is harder in many respects than that of a CEO of a corporation. You have so many more constituencies to deal with, and so many entities outside your control that can shape decisions which can negate your goals. You have to build consensus in a way that isn't necessary in the private sector, where you can simply give an order. As a CEO, your fear may be that someone will carry out a wrong or hasty order too literally. You don't have that fear in the government. There your fear is: I give an order -- Can anybody hear it? Is anything going to happen as a result?
Q: That's a big difference. From your perspective today, what are the right questions for EPA to be asking?
MR. COSTLE: That's a big question. Right now, the Agency is fighting for its life. Its organic statutes are under attack. It has a very unsympathetic Congress. It has lost the bipartisan political support that it enjoyed -- not through its own fault, but it has lost it. The general public increasingly wants to see a measure of common sense, and much that EPA does doesn't seem, on the face of it, to meet that criterion.
So it is tough for EPA to step back and say, "All right, we have got to reinvent ourselves." But it occasionally does need to do so, and maybe today's climate is the time for that. If we didn't have an EPA, we'd have to invent it. We are a lot smarter now than we were 25 years ago.
How would you invent it, and how would it look different today? Part of the answer is: one, it has got to recognize the global dimensions of these problems. Two, it has got to recognize that there are limitations to a command-and-control approach which presumes there is a cop on every corner. Three, it has got to find ways to take advantage of the natural turnover in industrial base.
A variety of other national policies will shape the 21st century. Policies can lead to a greening of technology in ways that coincide with our national economic interests, with being competitive in a global economy. The future will of necessity encourage more efficient utilization of raw materials and natural resources. The sooner we jump on that bandwagon, the better. I think pollution prevention is really the way to think about these problems, rather than just in terms of catch-up, clean-up.
In Woodstock [VT], there is a wassail ceremony every Christmas, with a big horse parade where everybody dresses up in period New England costumes. The horses and carriages circle the green, and behind them comes a man with a big galvanized garbage pail and a shovel. He wears a big stovepipe top hat, and he skates around scooping up after the horses. Watching this, I always think: That's an analogy for EPA and the chemical revolution. We're at the tail end of the parade cleaning up after the horses. We have got to get to the head of the parade.
Environmental concerns are a new prism through which we look at our world and how it functions. This new perspective has got to become part of our economic thinking in the next century. Take the current trends of population growth, 20th century technology, Third World expectations of industrial development. Then make assumptions about the continuing growth of the developing nations, all of which are real-world assumptions. Then lay a ruler down through them pointing to the future, and you realize very quickly that we can't get to a healthy, sustainable environment just continuing these trends, with no changes. Capital will be more expensive in the future, and environmental requirements will have to compete for it more aggressively. We're going to have to be a lot more efficient in the use of raw materials, because demands will go up, not down. If we don't change the nature of our technology, we face the prospect of living in a polluted, inhospitable world that may well lack the global capacity to support future generations.
That is the bad news. The good news is that there are actions we can take, things that we already know how to do. We have some time to act, if we have the political will to make something happen. What we know we have to do is not unimaginable or yet to be invented. If we could mobilize the resources, we could be a lot more inventive.
During the Clinton transition, when staff proposed abolishing the CEQ, I said, "This will strip the office of the President of any capacity to think about the future." It will all become crisis management and midnight memo writing. We have to get the Administration to focus long-term and to look in a systematic way at the range of government policies that thwarts our ability to move in the direction that we know, intellectually, we need to take as a society. We need to look at housing policy, transportation policy, energy policy through this different prism and say, "How do we change them?"
In the early '90s, the Carnegie Institute set up a National Commission on Environmental Priorities. I've been serving on the Commission, along with Russ Train and a number of business, academic and environmental leaders. One of our recommendations was a carbon tax or some equivalent. The idea didn't go anywhere, of course; it was too politically controversial. The Commission also recommended the creation of a council to define sustainable development for the United States, to serve as a vehicle for examining all of these policies in the light of the resources and demands we are going to face. Out of that came the President's Council on Sustainable Development.
The National Commission prepared a good report. If you thought its conclusions through, you could see that EPA must change its focus. Catch-up and clean-up worked for the first round, where we were dealing with gross pollution that was susceptible to reductions on a macro scale. But whole new generations of pollutants, the legacy of the chemical age, are not as susceptible to that kind of clean-up. We need new tools. We need to look at tax policy. We need to look at industrial policy: Our lack of one is in itself a kind of policy. We need to catch the next wave of turnover in plant and equipment, and encourage innovation that is more energy-efficient and materials-efficient, with fewer residuals. That is beyond EPA's current charter, which is limited by the conventional mandates it was given 25 years ago.
Energy Crisis and Energy Policy
Q: You said that you had been arguing essentially that case for the last 25 years. In what specific ways can you recall that this thinking influenced your dealing with the regulated community? Did the energy crisis and the stagnant economy alter EPA's relationship with the community?
MR. COSTLE: These events put us in direct conflict with the Department of Energy at the time. DOE responded to the crisis by saying that we had to get off oil. We have a lot of coal; let's go to coal. Let's go to nuclear, and fast-track it. We have to get rid of all the regulatory underbrush. DOE assumed that it was the "regulatory underbrush" that was keeping energy alternatives from happening. They didn't grasp the fundamental problems with these technologies, problems that weren't going to go away. That typified the intellectual hubris of the energy crowd. They weren't willing to acknowledge that the problems were real, and not just some malevolent mischief invented by a handful of tree huggers.
The only political ground I could take that was viable was to say, "All right, if you want to go to coal, we can go to coal. But let's do it right. Put money into clean-up, into scrubbers, and accelerate the development of clean-burning technologies." If you make it clear to industry that we have to do it right, I assure you they will find ways to do it, ways that are better than anything we predict right now.
I remember the frustrations President Carter, Stu Eizenstat, and Charlie Schultz went through trying to fashion a national energy plan. There were daily meetings at the White House over the issues. Everybody agreed that we needed to foster competition that would lead to increases in gas-fired co-generation facilities. We knew there was a lot of gas available, which would burn much more cleanly. In that "energy crisis" climate -- which is hard to imagine in retrospect -- EPA acted as a constant pressure point within the Administration, arguing that there were valid environmental objectives, that we could have both sufficient energy and a clean environment, simultaneously. But we had to be tough-minded about it, to keep the Administration in balance.
Q: We were talking about the issue of how the energy crisis and the stagnant economy shaped your relationship with the regulated community.
MR. COSTLE: Clearly, it put us in a polarized position vis-a-vis the energy people, but we held our own. Simultaneously, it elevated to even more significance our decision about coal-fired power plants and new source performance standards. When you put a decision like this in the context of what was perceived as a national emergency, you really get a sense of what the stakes were.
To President Carter's great credit, he really persevered on the merits. I think he was victimized by the embargo, because that sent a ripple of inflation through the whole economy. Higher energy prices, and ensuing panic, led to double-digit inflation, and that killed his presidency more than any other single thing. Added to that was the perception at the time that he was unable to articulate an overall vision of where we were going as a country. He could describe the problems. His famous malaise speech was actually a good speech. But everybody thought of it as weak. The President is supposed to project the image of leading the nation. So when President Reagan came in and said, "It's morning in America," everybody said, "That's a relief." And the public went to sleep for four or eight years, while all kinds of problems mounted.
So the oil embargo was a defining issue in our time. EPA was too often in a very defensive posture. Internally in the administration, we simply set out to do our homework better than anybody else, because we knew that was our best defense. Keep forcing people back to the facts, back to the merits, and do so in a way that was sympathetic to the Administration's energy objectives. Bill Drayton and his staff did a tremendous job during that era in working with the White House and others, in terms of raising the right questions and conducting solid analytical studies. We went out of our way not to be belligerent about the issues, because we realized that would not help.
We were, however, very firm in our purpose and the way we argued our case. Ultimately, we came through that era in relatively good shape. I think we succeeded by sticking to the merits and letting time work its way. It reminded me of the time in Connecticut when the first oil embargo hit. There were vociferous debates over siting an oil port and bringing supertankers into Long Island Sound. We weren't able to slay that dragon overnight, but we did let it bleed to death over time. We knew it would finally collapse of its own weight -- bad ideas usually do. But it makes it tough politically. You are in constant arguments with legislators and others who want quick fixes.
Q: Did you become, or did your strategy become, more conciliatory towards the regulated community? The bubble concept seemed to give greater flexibility to previously pretty intransigent sectors of industry.
MR. COSTLE: No, flexibility was in our earliest thinking. That came out of my experience in Connecticut, where we said, "We have got to find other ways to skin this cat." You can be confrontational for only so long and then, if either the statutes or your own policies don't permit you the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances, you're going to get hung eventually for bureaucratic rigidity. What may surprise you is that these "new" ideas were not the product of the '80s or '90s. EPA was already exploring and promoting these ideas in the late 1970s. So I wouldn't say that the energy crisis initiated our stance on balancing environmental protection and other national concerns.
But EPA was on the defensive, and we had to recapture the political high ground. We had to remind everybody of the public health impact of the problems we were dealing with, that it wasn't just a tree-hugger issue. We had laws that were only beginning to be implemented, and we were finding new problems. We thought that we really had to rebuild the constituency for the agency. We had to reduce the friction between the Agency and Congress. We had to develop an alliance with the White House and OMB that would give us the credibility to speak for the Administration. We had to signal our various constituencies -- be they the industries we regulated or the public interest groups that were counting on us, or just ordinary citizens -- what were doing and why. The public needed to understand that we were working in its interests.
To industry, it meant giving clear signals. It meant a red light or a green light, but not a flashing yellow. I find that this analogy resonates in talking with businesspeople. My message was that the only things that will work will be those that make common sense. The law was the law, and EPA would enforce it. But I wanted them to find the Agency to be rational and reasonable, not arbitrary and capricious. That wasn't in EPA's -- or anyone's -- interests. I tried to give the regulated community the sense that, if they came to us with legitimate comments and concerns, we would respond. If they just tried to bully us or manipulate issues politically, they were going to have a fight on their hands. And I told the staff, simultaneously, that the reputation I wanted the Agency to have is that of a fair and reasonable regulator. The bottom line is that the job is going to get done. If anyone can show us a better way to do it, we're interested in hearing it.
Now, moving an entire agency to think that way, particularly when it's in a defensive posture, is tough. It's been true of EPA since its founding that, when you're walking down the hall, somebody always seems to be yelling, "Incoming, incoming." That of course is the nature of the beast. You can't take an industrial economy as big and as complex as ours and turn it in a new direction without upsetting people. There's too much inertia and vested interest in the status quo. So you've got to believe in what you're doing and be tough about it. At the same time, however, if you're senseless about it, you'll suddenly turn around and find no followers.
Growth of EPA
Q: You mention that huge inertia. The Agency has grown to around 20,000 people now.
MR. COSTLE: A lot of that growth has been in the Superfund program, and I think that EPA made a mistake in thinking that so much of that program had to be run out of Washington. That just defies logic. I remember being told when I first came to EPA that there were 10,000 sand and gravel pits on the Mississippi River, every one of them an actual or potential point source of pollution. The average time it takes EPA to litigate a case is four years. You could tie up everybody at EPA for four years cleaning up the pits on the River. And you wouldn't even get to the 20,000 sources of air pollution. If you think of all the things you couldn't be doing, that immediately gives you a sense of proportion, a scale. You could never get the job done if litigating was your approach. You had to get a high voluntary compliance rate, and you had to leverage your resources.
So we had an interest in promoting strong state agencies that could carry a lion's share of that load. That would double or triple the resources out there. But with all said and done, even if we were spectacularly successful at building the institutional framework and enlisting state agencies, we still could not put a cop on every corner. We had to begin thinking about other ways to get this job done more creatively. We had to make it in everybody's interest to do it. This would potentially unleash tremendous amounts of imagination and energy.
We found that, time after time, once EPA made a decision, industry would respond with imaginative ideas. During the energy crisis, for instance, just in terms of energy conservation, it was amazing how much was done, and it turned out not to be that burdensome. The high risk in any similar situation is that we may let such windows of opportunity go by for lack of political will. Right now, we may not follow up on the report of the President's Council on Sustainable Development and make the changes in public policy that will put us in a different place five or ten years out. Instead we'll continue to let things drift, and that, I think, is an enemy to progress.
Another danger is that we'll trivialize EPA and diminish the Agency in a fashion that makes its work very tough. I've never felt that EPA's job was impossible. While the literal way some of the early statutes were written made some particular tasks impossible, if EPA is given the ability to be adaptive and flexible, it can define the job so that the goals can be achieved. EPA has to be creative, and that's very hard when you've got to keep remembering your purpose is to drain the swamp, even while the alligators are snapping at your tail.
Potential Organizational Change
Q: How do you change course with all that built-up inertia? How do you reorient this system in what is a fairly short amount of time, four years?
MR. COSTLE: You've got to start with a vision. You have to give clear leadership signals to people. Some creative thinking about redefining the organic statutory base of EPA is probably necessary. That's a tall order, but it's not as if people haven't been thinking about it. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences has done some studies on EPA. There is a group of former administrators working on that now, through the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Unfortunately, today is not the most hospitable political environment in which to have a serious discussion about EPA. Not surprisingly, the environmentalists don't really want to play a part; they're struggling just to hang on to what they've got. They want to be persuaded that anything that's different is going to be better, not worse. So they are very skeptical. However, we've got to think these issues through, because at some point we have to assume the political climate will be more neutral, and there will be bipartisan interest. We cannot wait for another major crisis to force it to happen. There will be a rational reception for policy changes and statutory changes, and the agency has to be a part of that.
Q: Do you think reorganization is worth the downtime?
MR. COSTLE: You pay a price, and you have to be prepared to do so. If you do your homework in advance, so that you really know how it's going to function, it can be a real asset. But you have to go about it in a very sensible way. Politically, it can lead to a lot of downtime, because it's not as if you operate in a vacuum. If you were the head of General Electric, you might have some internal squabbling over certain turf issues, over moving this division or changing that one. But you don't have a Congress and 300 public and industry groups to respond to. You also don't have an open political process where interests can all run to the Congress or the President to thwart what you're trying to do. If you try anything that is too radical a departure, somebody is going to introduce legislation to block it, and then you will find your time and energy diverted for an age.
Q: Is this something that you should hold off until the last two years of an administration?
MR. COSTLE: When it comes to dealing with the iron triangle -- the Hill, the lobbyists, and the internal agency turf issues -- I'm not sure that it makes much difference when you do it. In some ways, you probably have a more tolerant Congress early on than later. As time goes by, the Congress will always think, "Well, we may have a new team down there, and we'll just hold things as they are until we can deal with new people."
I still believe that functionality would be a logical way to organize the agency, but Congress has frustrated that. And there is a high price to be paid in downtime, in trying to reorganize. But there are other ways to get the Agency to think in new ways and, eventually, you may be able to pull that off. You can form crosscutting committees to undertake functional efforts. For instance, by consolidating enforcement, at least you know that, at a very important point in the implementation of the laws, the air and the water people have to work together. Sometimes the lawyers are more likely to do that than the engineers.
Over the years, EPA has built up expertise in various industrial categories as the engineers have broadened their outlook. If their assignment is to do mass balance analysis for a process, rather than simply look at what comes out of a particular pipe, they become much more sensitive to the overlaps and interlocking nature of the problems. There is where the crosscutting needs to take place, not necessarily on the bureaucratic end. Eventually, the bureaucratic boxes should follow the thought process, but you've got to have a willing Congress, a willing environmental community, and a willing industrial community for that to happen. It's amazing how quickly industry, for instance, builds up a vested interest in the status quo in their relations with a regulatory agency. They know who the players are and where to go to influence the process. Thus, there's a lot of resistance to any kind of major reorganization or overhaul.
And you do pay a price in confusion and downtime if you don't approach it very, very carefully, and get all these groups to buy into it. But in an atmosphere of perpetual crisis management, you rarely have the time to make that happen. Prior to taking the helm of the agency, I suppose it was a theoretical issue for me. But the reality was that Congress had loaded EPA up with too much to do, too tight timetables, and woefully inadequate resources. EPA was struggling just to respond. And as the laws were taking effect, the regulated community was going back to second-guess everything, to duck if they could, because big money was involved.
So the criticism had moved from "Do they really know what they're doing?" to "Of course, they don't." We had already had the early academic cry, "The goals of the Congress were wrong: 'fishable, swimmable' will bankrupt the country." But nobody had the data on that, one way or the other. I happen to think that Senator Muskie and Senator Baker and Representative Rogers knew exactly what they were doing in enacting those Herculean goals. They recognized that we had a huge inertia to overcome, and this was the way to start. Modification could come later.
In 1977, in Congress and in the environmental community, there was clearly a perception that, while the laws had been on the books, they had never really been implemented. This was not a criticism of Bill Ruckelshaus or Russ Train. Congress liked and respected both of those men. Perhaps Members weren't sure they trusted the bureaucracy, but they knew Bill and Russ were responsible, thoughtful administrators.
Instead, the Congressional advocates of EPA, the people who had been the spark plug for the laws that had been enacted, believed that the Agency had been throttled by OMB and the White House, and that the time had come to let the Agency do its work. And by then, the Agency's industrial opponents had lost their initial battles in court. And even in the instances where they had succeeded in delaying, there was now a new administration, and a new administrator, to deal with. So the opposition once again geared up its 16-inch guns, blazing away about how environmental protection would bankrupt industry and kill the country's economy. The noise was such that Congress obviously had to listen. The steel industry, in particular, was getting all their allies worked up. If it hadn't been for the steelworkers, for the unions, the Congress would probably have rolled over, because the steel caucus claimed to be convinced that we were going to put the U.S. industry out of business.
A major conception underlying the job of EPA Administrator is that you are the person who must make balanced, reasonable judgments, whose actions can be defended as consistent with the laws. You have to move the ball forward; the environment has to become cleaner as a result of the Agency's actions. But you are not allowed, in our system of checks and balances, to be arbitrary or capricious. By definition, the Agency and the administrator are on the side of the environment. That's the mission. In that sense, you are an advocate. But at the same time, you are in the position of a judge; you're a public official whose job is to ensure the laws are fairly and effectively administered.
At that time, from the Congress' point of view, the sense that the existing laws had to be evenhandedly implemented before they could be judged or amended was very ingrained. I remember vividly how strongly Senator Muskie felt that the statutes had not been appropriately implemented. Until then, he maintained, we should not be seeking changes in them. And there were also those in the academic community who criticized EPA's effectiveness from an ivory tower perspective. They overlooked or ignored the real world: the political dynamics of Washington, the checks and balances between Congress, the executive branch, and the judiciary. Nor did most of the critics consider the real-life difficulties facing the states, which were the front-line implementors of the programs.
The most vexing problems in the early months of my tenure were not in the Agency, but on the Hill. I was spending almost 50 percent of my time there because, given a new administrator and the frustrations they had experienced with the Agency in the past, there were any number of Congressional members who wanted to get me up there on record. In addition, I was relatively unknown to many of them, and they wanted to see me personally. So command performances on the Hill took up a big chunk of time, and I became increasingly frustrated myself each time I traveled there, wondering how I would ever get on top of the paper flow and into the rulemaking process itself, so I wouldn't become simply a rubber stamp at the end of the line.
And, of course, I was trying to do all of this while I was recruiting my management team. That recruitment is probably the single most important thing that you do as administrator. You must get your team in place early on, because you can't do it all. If everything has to come to you, you become the absolute bottleneck.
Q: Was it the externals that helped or pushed the change during your administration towards health issues?
MR. COSTLE: The externals certainly had a major influence, but it was in our interest, too. That was the political high ground, and EPA can't survive if it's not occupying the high ground.
Q: You said that you were constantly saying to the staff: "Don't look just at carcinogens; also look at other effects." Did you find that there was a momentum towards focusing on carcinogens?
MR. COSTLE: That's exactly right, and it continued for quite a time. It's only been in recent years that the agency has begun to truly realize that there may be stronger issues than carcinogenicity alone. I think the staff can be forgiven their preoccupation with it at that time, because it was really the issue where the public interest was focused, where political support was directed. Congress itself had seized on the issue, knowing that it was something concerning most Americans. So it was not surprising that the Agency's focus would tend in that direction.
It's a little like the story of the person coming across a man down on his hands and knees under a street lamp on a very black night. The person asks, "What are you doing?" "I'm looking for my wife's diamond ring." "Is this where she lost it?" "No, but it's where the light is, so this is where I'm looking."
Environmental health issues intersect with everything else we do. Fashioning a national policy on these issues is really in our interest, to assure us a sustainable future. Even accepting the vagueness of any definition of sustainability, it's a good, working, politically healthful formulation to address the needs of the present without compromising the future. If that's to happen, EPA needs a broader charter than it has now, and it has to have a broader base of institutional support.
Need for Broader EPA Mission
Q: What would that charter include?
MR. COSTLE: I think you've got to look at long-term economic issues and global development, at international issues such as trade, and at technology issues. The good news is that there's a happy concordance between environmental interests and national economic interests in the search for more energy-efficient and materials-efficient technologies. Not only is that good for us economically as a world power, but it's also probably where the next major increment of pollution control will come from. Plus, it improves our ability to market to the rest of the world.
If China and Third World nations simply replicate our twentieth-century technological experience, we'll never get out from behind the eight-ball. Right now, the good news is in China. You've got about 20 years where energy conservation is still the best, cheapest barrel of oil that they can get. Even though they're building power plants as fast as they can, they can't build them fast enough to change the overall equation.
It's a small window, but if we can get substantial breakthroughs in technology in renewables and solar and decentralized power generation, we can shape a sustainable global energy and environmental ethos for the 21st century. In the U.S., we could be going to hydrogen technology with cars. That could be pushed along at a much more rapid rate, but for the investment we have in the current infrastructure of automobiles and service stations and pumps. All of that represents inertia.
I don't think the problem is going to be figuring out what the long-term answers are. The near-term problem is going to be figuring out how to overcome our inertia and move in the right direction so that sustainable modes take on a life of their own. Typically, that doesn't happen in our country until there's a national emergency of some kind. My argument is that we can't wait for a national emergency.
Q: But if you give EPA this agenda, aren't you doing something that the Ash Council resisted, which was to try to incorporate all government functions under this one rubric?
MR. COSTLE: No, at that time we saw the catch-up-clean-up job as big enough in itself. There was much then that we didn't understand about the nature of the problem and particularly about its global dimensions. I think we're wiser now about that. I still don't think you can or should organize the whole government under that rubric, but I do believe you've got to create an intellectual center that integrates that sort of thinking.
If I were to restructure the government right now, I'd beef up EPA. I'd give it the capacity -- including the money -- to do the research, to promote technology development, to find ways to set standards that would encourage technological innovation. I would charge the agency with targeting command-and-control regulations more carefully, and with developing a more considered and thoughtful set of alternative tools, whether it's tax policy or incentive programs, to get the job done. In addition, I would make it the mission of DOT and DOE to come up with environmentally sustainable national policies and hold them accountable for implementing them.
One of the ways to do this is to reconstitute the CEQ, perhaps making its chairman the EPA Administrator, its vice chair the director of OMB. They will have clout by the nature of the responsibilities they already carry. And of course you staff them to function as a brain trust that truly looks across the spectrum of government policies and programs. This would help overcome problems that have stymied previous integration efforts. For instance, the National Environmental Policy Act was well conceived. But CEQ has always lacked the resources to carry out such a mission. You need a Council on Environmental Quality that has the real clout to direct the rest of the executive branch and to make the most coherent case to the Congressional branch.
I think beefing up environmental policy and programs is more than moving boxes. I don't even think, in reality, that it's giving EPA Cabinet status. I still believe in the power of ideas. In the long run, the best politics follows the facts, and I think the facts favor a stronger EPA, with more flexibility to address the next generation of pollution abatement needs. Instead of designing a catalyst to put on the end of an internal combustion engine, it's time to redesign the engine itself. That's a different, tougher job and requires, I think, a different approach.
Environmental Technology Policies
Q: EPA put some grant money toward redesigning the internal combustion engine and settled for the catalytic converter. What role does the Agency need to play in promoting technology? Should it be doing research and prescribing, or should it be setting standards and allowing industry the freedom to come up with the answers? The latter is the role it has generally played. Was it the right role, from your perspective?
MR. COSTLE: That's a good question. The early generation of technology was basically clean-up technology. How do you design a scrubber that works? What technology do you impose with a new source performance standard? How do you benchmark new standards against what you know can be done? These are the kind of questions we were facing. Industry always looked at that as a negative enterprise.
Several years after I had left the government, I was told by an official of one large international company that it had developed a ceramic diesel catalyst. It was expensive, but the company expected the price to come down dramatically if the device were adopted industry-wide. And at that time, the auto industry thought that, by the mid-'90s, 15 to 20 percent of the entire U.S. fleet would be diesel, so this development was highly relevant. But the developer was told by its single biggest customer, on of the Big Three automakers, that if the company publicized the availability of this technology, the automaker would never buy another shred of material from it. That was the way the auto industry then played that game.
Today, I think, it would be somewhat different. Industry has, in fact, come a long way. Obviously, the auto industry suffers from a tremendous infrastructure inertia, but I'm not sure the government can design the most efficient cars.
What the government can do is to identify key research issues that are blockages to improved technologies, such as some of the more advanced work in battery design or in wafer design for solar-powered energy panels. Parallels for such government/private industry cooperation exist. The airline industry, in effect, gave rise to engine technologies that made gas-turbine technology for power plants possible. This advance came in the nick of time and probably saved us from a massive coal conversion program. When the independent power producers started selecting technologies, they leaped on this, spurring GE to develop even more advanced engines. So sending the right economic signals is crucial. If you do that, industry will turn more energy and imagination to the job than government can ever mobilize.
Often, though, there may be some fundamental basic R&D issues up front. The Defense Department has been brilliant at identifying these. Certain breakthroughs -- such as the design of nuclear weapons, the space shuttle -- had to be done by government. Along the way, a lot of other developments spun out. Somebody in the private sector would see an interesting practical application for a new ceramic, and the market would change and broaden.
There is clearly a role for federal R&D. I think it has to be focused on cutting-edge issues, on defining the problem. One of the things that we must identify in compiling our check list of desirable technology targets is how to get economic signals right, for example, through the tax code. That will be more effective than having the government spend money to buy a demonstration project. Although I'm not against the government doing that, I think it may be the less effective route. If you can change the economic signals so industry can make money by coming up with a better mousetrap, that's a much quicker way to advance technology.
Q: Should the Administrator be selling the public on the notion of the environment being the moral equivalent of war -- using those kinds of metaphors to mobilize momentum?
MR. COSTLE: Well, you have to ask yourself whether that metaphor will mobilize anything anymore. It didn't really mobilize the energy world that much. What mobilized the energy world more than anything was price decontrol. Letting the price float broke up the cartel. That was a very courageous step that President Carter took. President Reagan finished it, but Carter started it. He opted to let the price float, and to see how much oil would be pumped out of the ground as a result. The oil cartel basically broke up over that. And rising prices also caused people to become more efficient in end-use.
I think government does have a role in promoting technology improvements. For instance, government promotion of efficiency standards for appliances has been a very important contribution. It provides baseline information that keeps the players honest. If government gets the economic signals right and sets national goals, we will unleash the creativity of private enterprise. The next breakthrough in passive solar designs or in fuel cell development is going to come when industry sees a market. The same thing will happen, I think, with hydrogen technology.
There may be some up-front issues of feasibility and practicality, where industry would like to see some initial demonstration. DOE or EPA funding can prime the pump for that development in some of these areas. But in the end, it will take Congress giving a strong policy signal, probably through the tax laws, to encourage this kind of private investment.
EPA and Environmental Groups
Q: How did your administration work with the environmental groups?
MR. COSTLE: Initially, we were cut a lot of slack from the environmental groups. I think they saw, not just an administrator but an administration that was pro-environment. President Carter had made environmental protection a campaign issue. He was perceived as an environmentally-minded President. As the administration wore on and it was clear that there were competing interests -- for instance, within the Council on Wage and Price Stability -- some environmentalists began to suspect that maybe the President's heart wasn't in it. They were wrong. His heart was there, always.
Just look at the record. It was the first administration that included genuine environmentalists in major roles. Public interest advocates served on the White House staff. Look at the highly visible political appointments, like David Hawkins and Tom Jorling, who were prominent environmentalists. For such reasons, the environmental groups initially gave us some leeway. They were smart about knowing how the game gets played. They realized that, especially with Congress, they had to counter opposing interests if we were all going to wind up in the right place. There was often a real tug of war on the Hill, and I think they did what they were expected to do. We did what we were expected to, and everything balanced suitably.
I believe we had a reputation for fundamental integrity with the environmental community. This not only served us well, but it also meant that we had allies when we got into a jam on issues like energy policy. There were occasions when they would sue us, knowing that they needed to litigate on one side of the issue, because our opponents were certainly arming to come in on the other. I think their leaders are often process experts. They understood their role in rulemaking and litigation and played it. They didn't expect us to do anything but play our role.
I don't think they ever distrusted our motives. We might disagree from time to time on means, but we weren't the enemy. We weren't necessarily going to do everything they wanted us to do, but they appreciated that EPA had people who had battle scars, who had proven their commitment to doing the right thing.
Q: And that even carried over to the proposal of the bubble, and compliance flexibility?
MR. COSTLE: They would often argue: "You must be crazy. Do you really think this is going to work? You're asking us to buy a pig in a poke." But it was an honest, forthright intellectual argument. I do think that, once the political tide turned and President Reagan took office, they were of no mind to brook any experiments.
I think it's probably going to take an administration and a Congress that are pro-environment to bring about any true EPA realignment. Only a discernibly pro-environment government will have the credibility to pull that off, because the level of discord and distrust and polarization now is so bitter that everybody has positions staked out, and careers staked to those positions. That makes it a very tough atmosphere in which to accomplish anything.
Even though we had disagreements with the environmental community on specifics, I believe the underlying relationship was one of trust and respect for each other's respective roles. That has not been the case more recently, and the community certainly had reason to be skeptical in the Reagan years. I think they were also honestly skeptical during the early Bush years. They saw the likes of John Sununu in office, and they felt the environment was not really important to President Bush.
There's a little of that with President Clinton. The environment is not really his issue. The $64 thousand question has always been: Has President Clinton the courage of Vice President Gore's convictions? The answer may be: If it's smart politics, yes. He proved this in staving off the 1994 Congress. For the first time in a long while, the environment became a wedge issue, because the Republicans tried to go to the other extreme. The fact is that it was the 1994 Congress that launched Clinton's bid for a second term.
People forget that he came into his own 1996 convention at about 22 percent in the polls. Then the Republicans overreached, and suddenly the President looked like a good choice, especially to people who were worried about the economy. I think the radical Republicans made the President look like a centrist. It comes back to the basic model of American politics: The battle is not fought in the end zones; it's fought between the 40-yard lines. Politicians who forget that soon find that they're out of step and, ultimately, out of office.
Q: Looking back could you characterize the direction on which you set EPA, or that you continued or furthered? What has been your most lasting influence on EPA's direction?
MR. COSTLE: I can't judge that directly. Ultimately, you define success in terms of the air and water becoming cleaner. And that was the result of many people's efforts. To that extent, we persevered.
Q: What about such innovations as regulatory negotiations?
MR. COSTLE: The concept of regulatory negotiations was a process success. But it was only one of a number of ideas that we were beginning to develop. I subscribe to the notion that you want EPA to be able to innovate to get its job done. If the Agency was to continue to enjoy the public's support, which it needs to succeed, we had to convince the public we were doing it well. Elements in Congress were gunning for EPA, and frustrations were building. For a time, a large part of our job was re-establishing the Agency's credibility with Congress.
Q: You're describing a management style that is almost that of a leader of a jazz band. You're encouraging lots of improvisation.
MR. COSTLE: I suppose there's some truth to that. The rap on EPA from the Democratic side of Congress was that we've written these laws, but the Nixon administration hasn't implemented them. Note that these were criticisms made without the benefit of any of the people on the Hill ever having had to run a program or implement a law that they had passed.
For years the Forest Service was the envy of the Civil Service. It had a reputation for professionalism. I considered myself to be a student of public administration, and I thought that example was worth emulating. It also provided a shield against being politicized. As long as you could communicate your professionalism to the public, you could ward off much political meddling. We had to hold ourselves out as a place where good professional people wanted to come and work, because the problems were tough and worth our best efforts to solve.
David Hawkins once gave me a little inscription that said, "The tough problems are those that fight back." The problem is not a worthy adversary unless it fights back. We were able to recruit top talent for that fight.
The world runs in political cycles, and we had an open window that we needed to take advantage of, in a smart way. As a result of Reagan's election, the window closed a little faster than I had hoped. But I think some good came even from that, in the form of what amounted to a public plebiscite. The public revulsion against the first crew of Reagan appointees gave EPA a renewed lease on life. Any agency will suffer hardening of the arteries if it's not kept fresh by challenges and problems that fight back. EPA will always have problems that fight back. In may ways, that's an indication that the Agency is getting something worthwhile done.
One of our accomplishments was to bring into focus the public health aspect of environmental protection. This was important high ground for the agency. But we certainly didn't intend that it would cause people to think that we weren't concerned about broader environmental quality issues. The perception that we were almost narrowly oriented to health issues was partly due to press coverage. At that time, health-related problems got more coverage than other issues.
We did succeed in helping to push through the first major revisions to EPA's organic statutes, and we helped get some important new laws and amendments on the books. This rounded out EPA's legislative authority; the major legislative era really ended at that point. If the agency then used its authority creatively, it could tackle most of the newer problems that it was coming up against. We also accelerated the rate at which we built the larger institutional infrastructure, building up the state programs so that there would be more institutional capacity to deal with problems day-to-day.
I think we showed that EPA could hold its own with the other cabinet departments and the intellectual councils of government. Not only were we able to make a positive contribution, but we could also help moderate policies of other departments that were inimical to environmental interests. I believe we did so in an honorable fashion, which gained public and political respect.
We battled with some powerful industries, autos and steel among them. While it started out as trench warfare, we got through the confrontations to a point where we could effect positive changes. The economy helped, in that respect. For example, for economic reasons alone the steel industry had to shut down a lot of obsolete plant equipment. They initially tried to blame the Agency for this, but they couldn't make that case stick. We forged an alliance with the steelworkers that helped keep those companies honest. When I left, I thought the Agency had a real sense of pride in itself. EPA people felt they were engaged in important work. The Agency was inundated with applications from top-quality people who wanted to work there.
I'm very reluctant, however, to say that we did something that my two predecessors didn't or wouldn't want to do. I saw it as a continuum, really. The Agency was six -- almost seven -- years old when I arrived. My feeling was that we didn't break stride. Much of what went on was natural evolution, which we just took to the next step. I'm convinced that Bill and Russ would have done the same things. In the Carter administration, the Agency did benefit from a better, more respected role and set of relationships within the Executive Branch. While Russ, for instance, had wonderful working relationships with some of the other cabinet officers and with Hill members, below that level of amicability between the principals it was often a different story. I think EPA earned respect at the working level, up and down, through its performance during events such as the energy crisis. The Agency staff demonstrated that they had a real soul for public administration.
Q: Why did they have this soul? What do you attribute that to?
MR. COSTLE: Conscience -- a commitment to the idea that government was necessary, was an essential part of American life. We demonstrated that government had an important role to play in setting the rules of the road, while at the same time recognizing that government couldn't do everything -- and shouldn't try to. It had to operate surgically and intelligently. The free enterprise system would not create clean air and clean water. So government had to step in and leverage minimal resources to get that larger societal job done, in a very complex industrial economy.
Johnson and Carter Administrations
Q: Was that a different kind of conscience than, for example, the Johnson administration's Great Society conscience?
MR. COSTLE: Different how? President Johnson really believed he could wipe out poverty, that equality of opportunity was the gift of the constitutional framers, and that we had to make good on that. This meant public education. It meant picking up people who need help out of poverty. This was conscience. This was a belief that a great nation took care of the poorest among us.
Q: So are you saying that during the Carter administration, perhaps, some people believed that government couldn't do all things, that it had to be more surgical, selective? You mentioned that you were an advance man for President Johnson, right out of college. How would you characterize the next Democratic administration, the Carter administration? Was there a character difference between the two?
MR. COSTLE: I believe the character of any administration, to some extent, reflects the character of the President. He sets the tone. Lyndon Johnson was a larger-than-life person. I've yet to meet a man who was more compelling in person, in a small group, than he was. You could see the skills he had acquired as majority leader, maybe the greatest majority leader ever, in terms of working his will and the President's will on the Senate.
Curiously, on a television screen, he was flat and two-dimensional; you did not get that sense of the power and strength of the man. Of course, he had flaws; he was human. But he brought some very bright people into office with him: Bill Moyers, Joe Califano, and many others. When Johnson decided to create his Great Society, these people didn't have a Domestic Policy Council or OMB policy apparatus designed to do the forward-looking. They basically dusted off a number of ideas that were already on cabinet shelves. They devised several innovations, the OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity) and the Community Action Program, Legal Services, etc., ideas that had a lasting and often controversial impact. I would certainly never argue that Lyndon Johnson had no soul; rather, his interests lay in a different area.
I would characterize President Carter as having a real belief that government could be effective and efficient and fair, that it could be run by moral people with integrity, that the people's business was very important, and that the public deserved a government that was above reproach. There were very few times during Carter's four years that there was even a hint of scandal or self-dealing. The closest incident came early, when questions were raised about Bert Lance's banking dealings in Georgia. The Reagan administration, in contrast, brought in the most sleazy people since Harding's time. Officials were indicted, went to jail, or were thrown out. They largely had no sense of appropriate ethics for government, for public administration.
President Carter, on the contrary, had a highly refined sense of the ethics of public administration. Remember that he ran, largely, against the perceived corruption of the Nixon administration. It was President Ford's pardon of Nixon that probably tilted the 1976 election. By then, people were convinced that Nixon had perpetrated an abuse of power. Nixon admitted it by resigning, in effect to avoid impeachment. Carter was absolutely determined that that would never happen in his administration. He deliberately sought out people that shared his moral and ethical standards for public policy.
But even while his officials widely subscribed to this post-Watergate mindset, politics -- in the sense of executive/legislative branch tensions -- flourished. Ironically, I remember telling my staff while I was at CBO -- well before I joined the transition -- that I hoped that the new President understood that Congress, even though it had a Democratic majority, was not necessarily his friend. No one rode in on his coat tails, and the glue that had once held Congress together, in terms of a well-established seniority system and powerful committee chairmen, no longer existed. It had been blown asunder by the Watergate crisis and post-Watergate voters. Tip O'Neill, as House Speaker, was going to have to scramble for every vote; he could no longer rely on twenty senior members to get the House's work done. For that reason, the new President was going to have to go to the people, to distinguish between himself and Congress. He didn't draw that distinction clearly enough, to my mind.
I think that President Clinton has made much the same mistake. It's understandable, and forgivable, because he is told -- as a Democratic President coming to town with a Democratic Congress -- together you can do the public's business. But today in Congress it's every man and woman for themselves. Party loyalty has broken down; there's little party identification.
Congressional Support and Opposition
Q: Who became your friends in Congress? Who were your enemies?
MR. COSTLE: I can't say that I had personal friends, in the way that Russ did, for example. But I knew many people who were steadfast allies: Doug Waldron, from a Pennsylvania steel district, for instance. And people like Tim Wirth, from Colorado, and Toby Moffett from Connecticut, along with new and upcoming members of the Watergate class who were very much interested in environmental issues. I worked closely with many of them, trying to keep members like John Dingell from acting on some of their worse instincts.
And of course there were the statesmen, with whom you could forge a wonderful working relationship, stalwarts like Edmund Muskie and Howard Baker, and newer members like Patrick Leahy of Vermont. I'm afraid we're losing too many of those people now. That was a different time and a different Congress.
Q: Congressman Dingell has been a long-term opponent of the Agency, in many ways.
MR. COSTLE: Mainly on specific issues, such as automobiles. On many others, John Dingell has been a good public servant. But in running his committee, he tended to bully people, and I have never been willing to be bullied. So he and I often went head-to-head. But we got the public's business done, and overall, I think there was mutual respect.
Q: Who had the best staff?
MR. COSTLE: Senator Muskie always had good staff; so did Howard Baker. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, while Muskie and Baker were there, had one of the best staffs on Capitol Hill. On the House side, Paul Rogers had a good staff, as did Henry Waxman. The House Public Health Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee had some very good people. John Dingell did, too.
Q: What do you think makes a good Hill staff?
MR. COSTLE: First and foremost, I believe a lack of arrogance, a willingness to listen and learn, a recognition that no staff person can know it all. He or she has to know his/her piece of it, including the priorities of their principals. I think our people largely enjoyed working with the Hill staffs. For the most part, the AAs enjoyed working with the Members. We generally cultivated relations with them just as we did with the White House staff, realizing that the more we did so, the more trust people would have, and the more credibility we could muster in making tough calls.
The House Appropriations Committee provided our best opportunity to take all the Assistant Administrators up, go through the entire Agency budget, and show how the pieces fit together. You couldn't do that with any other House committee, because they were only concerned with pieces of this or that. We never had that opportunity with the Senate Appropriations Committee, which I thought was weaker. Proxmire was focused on his Golden Fleece awards; his style was interlocutor vs. witness, an arms-length approach that was highly scripted. He seemed to be pre-occupied with items like the use of cars. I'll never forget the time he spent twenty-five minutes tracing each time Bill Drayton used an agency car, and five minutes on the entire R&D budget.
I thought highly of Tom Foley, who then chaired the House Agriculture Committee. He told me straight out, "I can't help you much, because I've got a group of members on the committee that hate the Agency's guts, and there's nothing you or I can do about it. If you want to reason with them, I'll help you where I can, but I can't deliver the goods for you. I don't have the votes." So we always knew where we stood, and that was helpful.
The Senate side was better, partially because each Member's responsibilities covered more jurisdiction. A Senator as a rule had more diversity in his portfolio, and that often brought a broader perspective. Senator Muskie was one of the greatest, a real statesman.
Q: It seems like the multiple committee oversight arrangements in Congress really made it difficult for the Agency. Would it be politically possible to get congressional reform to create a select committee on the environment, so EPA would report to one super committee?
MR. COSTLE: That's probably not possible. The environment has real tracking power with the American public. If it's as important to the public as it consistently seems to be, given polling data, it will continue to be seen as a plus issue for a Congressional member to be involved with.
The Executive Branch cannot tell Congress how to organize itself. You have to make suggestions carefully, even when invited to do so. I can't foresee the political dynamics changing in a way that would lead individual members, or Congress as a whole, to cede power to any special committee and lose the leverage they now have.
Advice to a New Administrator
Q: What advice would you give a new administrator, preparing to come into the Agency?
MR. COSTLE: I'd recommend that he or she immediately set some clear goals, perhaps five things to accomplish during the first year. Then define, over four years, where you want to be in that time, what you'd want to be remembered for. Force yourself to decide what the important things are. That first year, much of this is determined for you by the transition, in choosing your team, in getting on top of the flow of business within the Agency, the administration, and the Congress. But it is critical to look periodically at your priorities, because it's amazing how fast those four years will go by.
You can modify your goals as you go along. The pressure of events will in fact force some alterations. But setting an agenda focuses you and helps you convey to the Agency a sense that you know where you want to go. The staff wants to see a sense of leadership and direction. The career professionals are more than happy to wheel their resources behind you, unless they perceive that you are undercutting the Agency wholesale.
I was fortunate that my relationship with the President and the White House staff was excellent. In that respect I probably had an easier, better time -- even when we disagreed -- than any of my predecessors or successors. That was a real asset, worth cultivating. But you can't always look for direction from the White House on every decision. Take the initiative. If you think you know what to do, and you're convinced it's right, just go do it.
Interview conducted by Dr. Dennis Williams on August 4-5, 1996, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, McLean, Virginia, and at Douglas M. Costle's home in Vermont