WASHINGTON — The chairman of a Senate committee that oversees environmental issues has directed two national organizations that oppose President Bush's major clean-air initiative to turn over their financial and tax records to the Senate.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who heads the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked for the documents 10 days after a representative of the two groups criticized Bush's "Clear Skies" proposal before a Senate subcommittee. Inhofe is the leading sponsor of the administration bill, which is deadlocked in his panel.
There is not even any subtlety about this. This is a blatant attempt at intimidation and bullying so that experts will be afraid to speak out about a bill that rolls back air pollution protections for all Americans.
US Rep. Henry Waxman
The executive director of the two organizations, which represent state and local air pollution control agencies and officials, charged that the request was an attempt to intimidate critics of the measure.
Democratic senators on Inhofe's committee also were dismayed by his action, but declined to say so publicly because they were in the midst of sensitive negotiations with the chairman on the legislation, staffers said.
The committee's majority staff director, Andrew Wheeler, said the request for the groups' documents did not stem from their criticism of the legislation. He said the panel wanted to determine whether the groups represented only regulators' views or whether they also were subsidized by outside interests, including environmentalists or foundations.
The funding, Wheeler said, "goes to who they're speaking for."
William Becker, the executive director of both groups — the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, which represents 48 state air pollution control agencies, and the Assn. of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, which represents more than 165 local agencies — said they received no money from environmental activists or other private interests.
The administration has proposed the "Clear Skies" initiative as part of its effort to overhaul the way the Clean Air Act forces power plants to cut emissions.
The measure would set new emission standards for three major pollutants and introduce a market-based approach favored by industry. Proponents say it would reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions by 70%. Opponents say reductions could be achieved faster through tighter restrictions or other approaches, including existing Clean Air Act regulations.
Inhofe delayed a vote on the bill this week after he determined that he did not have the numbers to send it to the full Senate. The panel's 18 members are split, largely along party lines.
On Jan. 26, John Paul, an environmental regulator from Ohio, testified on behalf of both pollution control organizations. He told the Senate subcommittee that "Clear Skies" "fails on every one of our associations' core principals," was "far too lenient" on polluters and would undermine "states' abilities to protect air quality."
After the testimony, several senators sent a letter to Paul with follow-up questions; Inhofe included a request for financial statements, membership lists and tax returns for the last six years for both groups. Paul is the vice president and incoming president of the local air pollution group. Inhofe's request was first disclosed by Cox News Service on Friday.
The Senate committee asked for the information because it had long-standing concerns about the decision-making process of the state air pollution group, and was pursuing those questions as part of its oversight responsibility, Wheeler said.
"It has nothing to do with 'Clear Skies,' " he said. "If we wanted to intimidate them, we would have done it before they testified, not after."
Wheeler said there also were concerns about whether the state group purported to speak for all its members when some disagreed with its positions.
The two groups represent the views of the state and local regulators before the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress. They also do training, surveys and publish newsletters.
"We have a limited constituency — the 50 states and local agencies," Becker said. "These are the only ones for whom we can work."
Becker said Inhofe's request appeared to be "some sort of retaliation against some very legitimate criticism of [Bush's] 'Clear Skies' proposal."
Although the membership often is not unanimous on the state group's positions, Becker said, "We go to great pains to try to reach an overwhelming majority, not just a simple majority, and we succeed."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said: "There is not even any subtlety about this. This is a blatant attempt at intimidation and bullying so that experts will be afraid to speak out about a bill that rolls back air pollution protections for all Americans."
A Republican who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, Paul gained prominence in March 2004 when he told the Los Angeles Times that an EPA advisory committee he co-chaired had been abruptly shelved after it requested comparative data on the administration's proposal to control mercury emissions from power plants. The EPA never produced the information.
He said he was "deeply disappointed" by Inhofe's request.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times