Today, the EPA building in Washington, DC is getting a new name: the “William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building.”
Last December, Congress passed legislation that would rename the federal building that houses the Environmental Protection Agency after the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton.
Carol Browner led President Clinton’s EPA from 1993-2001, and is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. She gave a speech Wednesday morning at the building’s renaming ceremony that reflects on the deep impact the Clinton administration and EPA had on the environment, economic prosperity, public health, and future generations of the United States. Since he left office, President Clinton has only gotten stronger on combating climate change and climate denial.
Here are Carol Browner’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the William Jefferson Clinton EPA Building Dedication July 17, 2013:
Thank you Barbara [Boxer] for the introduction and thank for your tireless leadership in the Senate. You are a true and committed friend of this agency and all environmental issues.
What a pleasure it is to be here today and to be joined by so many that I have had the honor to work with over the years. At the end of the day you are only as good as they people who join you in any effort — and I was incredibly lucky to be joined at EPA by so many outstanding folks — both political and career folks. All dedicated public servants.
I also want to recognize the other members of the Clinton Gore environmental team. Today is not just recognition of EPA — but really of all the environmental and natural resource work done under the leadership of President Clinton and Vice President Gore.
From the preservation of our national forests to the protection of Yellowstone, the creation of new monuments and Death Valley National Park; from the designation of 14 American Heritage Rivers to the protection of an 84 million acre coral reef system in the Northwest Hawaiian Island and to the greatest wetland restoration endeavor in my favorite national park the Everglades. Because of your work the landscape of our country is a much more beautiful and protected landscape. And a special thanks to John Podesta who was such an essential part of the environmental team. Always with his eye on the big picture.
Mr. President — it is hard to believe that it was more than 20 years ago that you asked me to join your administration. Neither of us had a single silver hair. At the announcement of my nomination in Little Rock — I held my son on my hip — that little boy is now an adult working as a camp director instilling in young boys a sense of nature.
During you tenure, we faced an intransigent Congress, a fierce, well-funded and active opposition. Glad to see so much has changed around here! But, through your leadership, we found a way to succeed especially when it came to protecting the public from the dangers of pollution. Twenty years ago we embarked on a journey that has led to unprecedented success in cleaning our air and water and protecting our communities.
I first met you when I was serving as Secretary of the Environment for my home state of Florida and Governor Lawton Chiles — as candidate Bill Clinton you came to survey the wreckage caused by Hurricane Andrew.
In true Clinton fashion the allotted time for your visit was extended many times over. But what I saw that day was what Americans came to see — a gifted leader with the touch of a close friend. In Florida that day, you didn’t come to witness disaster, you came to raise spirits. And time and time again, throughout your presidency, on environmental issues, economic issues and every issue — you lifted America’s spirit when it was most needed.
The Clinton Gore campaign slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid” wasn’t just a slogan, it was a governing philosophy. And when people talk about the Clinton administration they recall the booming economy, low unemployment rates, a balanced budget and a reformed welfare state. And when it came to protecting our environment — our air, water, the health of our children and communities you proved that we didn’t have to choose between a strong economy and a healthy environment. In fact we could have both.
For starters, you and Vice President Gore elevated and strengthened EPA — giving the agency a seat at the cabinet table. You used your veto power to ensure that EPA had the money and the authority to do its job — rejecting 16 appropriations riders.
You exposed the Dirty Water Act and under the Vice President Gore’s leadership reorganized and strengthened the enforcement of our nation’s environmental laws while providing regulated industries common sense cost effective compliance tools.
You recognized that EPA’s work should be about protecting the most vulnerable among us — our children — – because when we do that we are protecting all of us.
We passed new laws to protect our food and drinking water that embodied that commitment to children’s health. And you signed an Executive Order directing all agencies to consider how best to protect America’s children.
You held your own administration accountable — with executive orders calling for efficiency in government buildings and requiring that federal agencies and entities comply with pollution requirements.
And you knew that engaging the public is key to successful governance — that access to better and more information through programs like TRI — the toxic release inventory — would generate awareness and support for tackling our environmental challenges.
Coming back here brings up so many memories. But one of my earliest memories is of your first address to the Congress — midway through the speech you noted the dismal record of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. My father called immediately wanting to know what I had done wrong — and I explained the obvious — I had just gotten there — but I assured him we would be fixing the program. It doesn’t happen every day that you get called out by the President of the United States and your dad! But by the end of your second term, more than 600 sites had been cleaned compared to the 120 or so in the first 12 years of the program.
Congress wouldn’t pass the changes to the law we asked for so instead we made the program work faster, fairer and more efficient with the law on the books. Today these former toxic waste dumps sites that are vibrant parts of communities — soccer fields; parks, even some golf courses.
You launched the Brownfields program to convert low level contaminated sites into usable space, creating jobs and enhancing community development. And again, you did it, with no new law or new money.
I am frequently asked what were your best and worst moments at EPA. The worst was certainly the government shut down — but it led to the best — the onslaught of attacks caused us to explain to the American people what EPA does – how important EPA is to the health of their children and their communities. The fight you led gave us the strength and the public support to set tough air pollution standards, to strength the ozone — smog — standard and to establish the first-ever soot standard.
As a result, we removed soot from diesel fuels, cleaned up toxic emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks, removing more than 50 million tons of dangerous air pollutants.
As some will remember those soot and smog standards where not without controversy — but in the end even the Supreme Court — 9-0 — agreed the administration had done it right. That we had followed the Clean Air Act requirements: That we had used the best available science to set a strong public health standard.
When I look at the challenges in front of us today — specifically the challenge of climate change — as daunting as it is — I am optimistic for our future, because you proved two things: that we don’t have to choose between the economy and the environment and that the power vested in the President by the congress — our environmental laws on the books — are good and can be used to do good — to protect our communities and the health of our children.
This is a legacy that should not be overlooked. Leveraging executive authority in the 1990s paved the way for the action we need today to make a difference.
Because of a question posed to me at a hearing by then Congressman Tom DeLay — your administration did the original legal analysis that determined that the Clean Air Act gives the president the authority to set standards on carbon pollution. And The Supreme Court has approved this authority.
And, now, today, like what happened when you were in the Oval Office, this president is preparing to use his existing authority — granted by the Congress and affirmed by the Supreme Court — to take action to address the causes and impacts of climate change. And to those who still serve the public interest at the EPA — I know you are up to the task.
Hopefully in the next hours the Senate will confirm Gina McCarthy as the next administrator of the EPA. She is a pragmatic problem solver with bipartisan support. And her confirmation is great news for the next chapter of this agency. Thank you to my good friend Bob Perciasepe who has guided the agency while awaiting a new administrator and has a distinguished career of protecting the public health as a leader at EPA.
Thank you Mr. President for giving me the opportunity to serve you and the American people; the opportunity to get up every day for 8 years and come to work and think about how best to make our country a little bit better; our communities — our air and water — a little bit cleaner.
And thank you Mr. President for what you have continued to do on behalf of the global environment. You have most certainly not slowed down. You have proven and are proving that real action on climate change is achievable and that cutting carbon can fuel economic opportunity, create jobs and improve our world. We still don’t have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. I can think of no better recognition of your leadership and ongoing commitment to finding the environmental solutions of today — than that this building bear your name.