WHEN President Clinton announced 20 months ago that he was proposing to abolish the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and replace it with a White House office on environmental policy, it looked like the end of an era for the landmark National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and CEQ, its implementing group.
Congress had established CEQ in the Executive Office of the President to oversee NEPA's key requirement that all federal agencies consider the environmental consequences of major proposed actions. In its early years under President Nixon, with a staff of more than 50, CEQ also prepared special presidential environmental messages to Congress that included legislative initiatives for regulating ocean dumping, mining, pesticide and toxic-substance use, predator control, and the strengthening of antipollution laws.
No president has ever used CEQ effectively as a true advisory body on environmental policy. President Reagan cut its staff from 49 to 8. During the Bush presidency, however, its staff grew to 32, although the three-member council was reduced to just one member.
Mr. Clinton named Katie McGinty, who had been then-Sen. Al Gore's senior legislative assistant for environmental policy, to head the new White House office on environmental policy. But he never created the office formally. CEQ continued in a kind of limbo as a separate entity without assigned duties. Acting chairman Ray Clark saw his staff cut to three.
When Clinton moved to abolish CEQ legislatively by including its NEPA functions in a new bill designed to elevate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) into a department of the environment, he ran into unexpected opposition. More than 30 conservation organizations, led by the Center for Marine Conservation, sought to keep a permanent environmental entity established by law in the Executive Office of the President to oversee NEPA and advise on environmental affairs.
When negotiations with Clinton administration officials proved unproductive, conservation leaders sought help from Congress. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, an original author of NEPA, and Rep. Gerry Studds (D) of Massachusetts opposed the transfer of NEPA oversight out of the Executive Office of the President. The most potent opposition came from Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and ranking minority member Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island.