The Case for Gina McCarthy

The country deserves to have the EPA headed by a respected and experienced leader.

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Gina McCarthy, Assistant Administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency, holds a climate change report as she speaks at a climate workshop sponsored by The Climate Center at Georgetown University, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama is poised to nominate McCarthy as head of the powerful Environmental Protection Agency. McCarthy, who currently heads the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, reportedly has the inside track to replace Lisa Jackson, who officially stepped down from the agency last week.

A sustainable economy requires a balanced and pragmatic approach to regulation. Too much regulation – or badly crafted regulation – can slow economic growth and burden consumers with higher costs. Yet too little regulation endangers the health of businesses; for example, when a fishery is overfished to the point of destruction. Or when retail investors pull their funds from the stock market because the odds are stacked against them.

It's a rare policymaker who can plot the right course between inadequate regulation and overregulation. Even more rare is the policymaker who can hold that course, despite intense lobbying from both sides, and serve successfully under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Gina McCarthy, the current nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of those rare people who understands that balance and gets it right. Unfortunately, her nomination is being held up by the threat of a filibuster in the Senate. She deserves a vote, and she deserves confirmation.

McCarthy has served in state-level environmental protection departments in Massachusetts and Connecticut under five different governors, both Democratic and Republican. One of her former bosses is Republican governor and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. She is well regarded by leaders in both political parties as open, accessible and eager to find solutions that work for all stakeholders.

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Last year, for example, McCarthy worked closely with the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing chemical companies. Council members were concerned about a proposed EPA proposal to regulate toxic emissions from industrial boilers.  Based on data provided by the Chemistry Council, McCarthy reworked the proposed rule. The revised rule drew praise from both environmentalists and chemical companies.

In Massachusetts, McCarthy promoted the development of new, entrepreneurial businesses that exploit opportunities to reduce carbon emissions linked to climate change. She helped start the Strategic Envirotechnology Partnership at UMass, which helps fledgling clean tech companies solve technical problems and accelerate their sales.

McCarthy has shown a flair for finding ways to address environmental health issues while minimizing compliance costs. In Massachusetts, for example, she set her sights on mercury, which gets concentrated in food and causes brain damage. Under her leadership, the Massachusetts EPA launched a campaign to encourage dentists to stop using amalgam fillings that contain mercury. Fortunately, dentists can choose from several alternative materials that work just as well as mercury and are reasonably priced.

McCarthy's openness and willing to work with all sides wins praise even from those who disagree with her on policy. Donna Harman, president and chief executive of the American Forest and Paper Association, praised her style. "She's very data- and fact-driven, and that's been helpful for us as well as the entire business community," she said to the Washington Post. "It doesn't mean I always got what I was looking for, but we can have a dialogue."

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As qualified as McCarthy is to head the EPA, there's no guarantee that she'll be confirmed – or even that her nomination will reach a vote of the full Senate. Many Republican senators have threatened to filibuster her nomination, and even more have threatened to vote against her should her nomination come to the floor.

Frankly, the opposition has nothing to do with McCarthy's personal qualifications for the job and everything to do with the broader power struggle between Congressional Republicans and the Obama administration. With Congress gridlocked and unable to pass any climate-related legislation, the EPA will play a pivotal role in reducing carbon emissions. McCarthy's current job as head of the EPA's air quality arm puts her on point for crafting and implementing these regulations. Those who oppose any carbon limits benefit from keeping the EPA leaderless as long as possible. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is under intense pressure from the left to exercise the so-called "nuclear option" and change senate procedures to prevent filibusters on nominations. This would free McCarthy's nomination to move forward, along with many other public servants whose nominations have been stalled. It's not an easy decision. The nuclear option sets a dangerous precedent that Democrats may regret if and when Republicans retake the Senate.

Hopefully McCarthy will get the vote she deserves without Reid going nuclear. She's reached a compromise with Republican Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who has committed to support a floor vote.  Her case will be helped by a few other Senators who are on record against using the filibuster to stall confirmations.

Gina McCarthy deserves to a have a vote in the Senate.  The country deserves to have the EPA headed by a respected and experienced leader who knows when and how to regulate, and when not to.

David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.

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