Leavitt's challenge

October 29, 2003

In the end, only eight Senate Democrats could bring themselves to say no to that earnest face, that soft-spoken manner -- and that threat of a slam-dunk cloture vote posed by the Republican leadership.

So, by a vote of 88-8, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt was confirmed Tuesday as the administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Even Hillary Clinton, holding a White House promise to we-really-mean-it-this-time investigate the health threats faced by World Trade Center downwinders, voted to confirm.

The lopsided vote, after weeks of Democratic delays, is a significant victory for the White House and for Leavitt's reputation as a peacemaker. With characteristic humility, Leavitt said that he had accepted the job because, "I continue to be very optimistic that I can make a contribution."

Leavitt's optimism will be severely tested. He, and we here in Utah, will know relatively quickly if he will be allowed to pursue his brief as a protector of the environment, or whether he will, like predecessor Christine Todd Whitman, be cavalierly overruled whenever he considers the planet's long-term health on at least a par with industry's short-term profits.

Leavitt said Tuesday that he supports the Bush environmental policies because, in his view, they protect the environment without putting the United States at a competitive disadvantage in the world market.

Greater efficiency in energy production and manufacturing would, indeed, improve the United State's competitiveness, and make a few honest millionaires along the way. But this administration has shown no interest in anything other than last-century fossil-fuel technologies, technologies as antiquated as the dinosaurs whose guts they run on.

Unless that attitude changes, the United States will very definitely lose its competitive advantage to whatever nations are pressured by their governments and their consumers to make the scientific breakthroughs that will power the 21st century cleanly and cheaply.

Leavitt, who will turn his keys over to Lt. Gov. Olene Walker on Nov. 5, also correctly pinpointed the next constituency he must win over -- the EPA's 18,000 employees.

The professionals at that agency have been largely ignored by the Bush administration. Their advice on global warming was censored and their concerns about everything from dirtier power plants to arsenic in the water have been routinely dismissed by the White House.

    Such heavy-handed management is supposedly not Leavitt's style. But, if he wants to fulfill his dream of resolving the nation's environmental problems through conciliation rather than litigation, Leavitt will have to have the EPA pros and the White House pols on his side.

   That's a task that will require all the optimism Mike Leavitt can muster.