WASHINGTON — The White House, which proposed elevating the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet level, declared Thursday that it opposes the House bill to bring about the change because it contains provisions that "raise serious constitutional concerns."
In particular, the Administration said it objects to creating a semi-independent Bureau of Environmental Statistics over which the executive branch would have limited control.
"Unless these provisions are deleted or modified satisfactorily, the President's senior advisers, including the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the attorney general, would recommend that the bill be vetoed," the Administration said in a formal "statement of Administration policy" sent to Capitol Hill.
Under the House bill, the new statistics bureau would be given the power to collect data on environmental hazards and would be required to widely publicize its findings.
Presidential appointees, including the head of the new environmental department, would be forbidden to review the statistical bureau's reports, and the head of the bureau would be protected from firing.
The Administration maintains that those provisions would make it impossible for the secretary of the environment to run the department. Administration lawyers said the bill also infringes on the President's constitutional power to run the executive branch of the government.
However, congressional Democrats said that the independent status is needed to make sure that environmental information dispensed to the public is credible and nonpartisan. During the Ronald Reagan Administration, the Democrats point out, political appointees at EPA were accused of hiding information that conflicted with White House policy.
"It would be a sham and a shame to place another chair around the Cabinet table with a law that places a gag on the department's ability to protect the environment in an effective and nonpartisan way," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said, noting that he "deeply regrets" the Administration veto threat.
The threat was made at an unusually early stage in the legislative process. Bills to create the new environment department are being considered by committees in both the House and Senate and could face months of consideration before a final vote is taken.
But Administration officials, who have been widely criticized on environmental issues in the last several months, do not want to be put in the position of threatening to veto an environmental bill once its passage is imminent. By taking a strong stand now, an Administration official said, the White House hopes to head off potential problems early.