President-elect Joe Biden is bringing in Obama-era heavyweights to run his White House climate team in a move that is bound to cause tension with congressional Republicans opposed to mandates to curb emissions.
Two well-known, Obama-era veterans will be responsible for realizing Biden’s climate agenda, poised to be the most aggressive of any president. Neither of those officials, however, will be Senate-confirmed, limiting congressional Republicans’ oversight of their positions to largely political noise.
Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, as the first national climate adviser, will take on “a singular focus on carrying out our ambitious climate agenda here at home,” Biden said Sunday when introducing his slate of climate and energy nominees.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement, will be the voice of Biden’s emissions-curbing policies abroad. As special climate envoy, Kerry will be the first climate-focused official to ever sit on the National Security Council.
Conservatives are suggesting that McCarthy and Kerry could wield more influence than Biden’s Cabinet secretaries, especially those who are new to leadership posts in the federal bureaucracy, such as Michael Regan, Biden’s pick to lead the EPA, and Rep. Deb Haaland, his nominee to be interior secretary.
Senators should ask tough questions of those Biden nominees whose jobs could be “diminished by the existence of multiple climate czars,” said Clint Woods, a former Trump EPA air official who is now a regulatory policy fellow at Americans for Prosperity.
“Those questions are totally legitimate and very important,” Woods added. “The worst thing in the world would [be] to have an entirely unaccountable climate change policy regime operated out of the White House without any connection to the agencies that have been OKed and granted authority by Congress.”
Senate Republicans are signaling they’re ready to interrogate Biden’s picks to lead agencies such as the EPA and the Interior and Energy departments.
“We will be in a bit of a brawl, I don’t think there’s any question,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, told Fox Business on Sunday.
“If you want accountability and not just a rubber stamp for a Joe Biden Cabinet, you need to have people like me as chairman of the Energy Committee,” said Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso on Fox News Sunday. He will oversee confirmation battles for Biden’s picks to lead the Energy and Interior departments.
“It’s not going to be a garden party if the Republicans are in the majority,” Barrasso added. “These nominees are going to have to run the gauntlet.”
Republicans’ options to scrutinize McCarthy and Kerry are more limited, however.
“The problem with having these powerful White House czars, regardless of who’s in office or which party, is they’re not very accountable to Congress,” said Myron Ebell, energy and environment director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who served on the Trump EPA transition team.
“It’s not easy to get to them,” Ebell added. “They can do a lot of things behind the scenes without ever facing a congressional committee asking questions.”
Congressional Republicans have previously balked at far-reaching climate posts that don’t answer to lawmakers’ scrutiny in the way agency heads must.
House Republicans slammed former President Barack Obama during his first term for appointing “czars” to oversee policy areas, taking particular issue with Carol Browner, the former Clinton EPA administrator he tapped to oversee his agenda to curb emissions.
In early 2011, House Republicans even voted on an amendment to a spending bill to block funding for the salaries of Browner and other policy “czars.” By that point, though, Browner had already announced she was stepping down from her post.
Democrats close to the Biden team, however, say such moves from congressional Republicans are political theatrics that won’t deter the president-elect’s efforts to curb emissions.
“If they want to alter the policy, that’s not an effective way to do it,” said John Podesta, who served as Obama’s top climate and energy adviser in his second term, of congressional Republicans’ tactics.
“If they want to alter the policy, then they need to come down to the White House and talk to the president and convince him they’ve got some ideas about how to move forward with decarbonization that are better than the ideas he’s pursuing,” added Podesta, now a board member for Climate Power 2020 and the Center for American Progress.
Congressional Republicans could create challenges for the Biden climate team in other ways, though. Podesta noted that if Republicans retain control of the Senate, it would be difficult to bring to fruition Biden’s promise to invest $2 trillion in actions to curb emissions and boost clean energy over the next four years.
McCarthy and Kerry will each face their own hurdles distinct from politics, Democrats say.
Kerry, for example, will have to work to regain the trust of other governments that the United States will take steps to curb its own emissions after the Trump administration disengaged on the issue, said Heather Zichal, a top climate adviser during the Obama administration who now serves as CEO of the American Clean Power Association. McCarthy, meanwhile, will face the challenge of coordinating a strategy to curb emissions across federal agencies sharply, she added.
Nonetheless, having McCarthy, someone who knows the federal regulatory landscape well, in that role gives Biden’s Cabinet officials an ally at the White House level, said Stan Meiburg, a former EPA deputy administrator who now directs Wake Forest University’s sustainability program.
“Gina is not going to be sitting in the White House trying to do the job of being a Cabinet secretary or the administrator of the EPA. She is very savvy about how these things work,” Meiburg added. “But it will be a tremendous benefit to those secretaries and the new administrator to have someone in the White House who is able to help advance things where a word from the president can really make something move forward quickly.”
Conservatives, though, say they’re hoping tensions among Biden’s growing climate team can slow down regulatory action.
Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist and former deputy director in the Trump White House Office of Legislative Affairs, said tensions are likely to arise over McCarthy’s and Kerry’s roles in the same way presidential national security advisers have been a “constant source of friction” among heads of the Defense and State departments by trying to run policy there.
He also suggested Biden will face the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen.
“They don’t seem to understand that the more people you put into a room, the less likely you are to get anything done,” McKenna said.