Clinton Library docs show freewheeling energy, environment honchos
“That was Clinton seeing that this was going to become an issue and thinking ahead,” Richardson said about his climate memo. “He [Clinton] said, ‘Bill, you go do that.’ … He read everything.”
The memo, dated Oct. 5, 1998, is among 18,000 pages of documents posted online by Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock, Ark.
A Greenwire review of those records show that the Clinton administration’s biggest names in energy and environment — Carol Browner at U.S. EPA, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and several Energy secretaries, including Richardson — were an active part of the White House’s agenda, often helping out in unfamiliar territory for their agency or department.
In addition, the documents detail how members of Clinton’s Cabinet would wield their political acumen to win allies or punish enemies as they tried to execute the administration’s agenda.
For example, in Richardson’s memo, he wrote “we need a more political strategy to win cooperation” on climate change.
“We need to begin by targeting the countries that we have the best chance of splitting away from the G-77,” Richardson wrote, mentioning well-off U.S. friends, such as Israel and Singapore, as countries that could be persuaded to lower their emissions. “We can also target those countries over which we have, for a variety of reasons, great leverage.”
Richardson planned to use his official travel later that fall to lobby governments in Mexico, South Korea, Venezuela, the Middle East and elsewhere to cut back on their greenhouse gas emissions.
“In my view, the Cabinet was used very effectively. In other words, it was used,” Richardson said. “We got along. It was collective. Clinton used his Cabinet.”
Patrick Griffin, who led the Clinton White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs for a time, said in an interview that including the Cabinet was a concerted part of Clinton’s strategy in Washington.
“We had a lot of talent throughout the administration,” Griffin said. “We had them [the Cabinet] in mind all the time. Who can help on this? Who can make a call? Who should we put out with Clinton? It was a different approach.”
Barry Rabe, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald Ford School of Public Policy, said Clinton, like President Obama today, had little luck with Congress when it came to the environment.
“This was an administration that was delegating quite a bit of influence on picks to a vice president who was strong on the environment,” Rabe said. “But not unlike this administration today, it was going to have a really tough time in passing any kind of environmental legislation. Like today, it was all about executive action.”
The Cabinet’s all-hands-on-deck campaign is evident in some of the Clinton administration’s biggest victories and defeats.
Browner, who was Clinton’s EPA administrator for all eight of his years in the White House, is listed on a sheetdetailing lawmakers’ positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which still riles many in the Democratic Party today.
“Browner could be effective,” said a note on former Rep. Karen Shepherd (D-Utah) who was serving her one term in the House at the time. Also listed on the NAFTA document was Federico Peña, then secretary of Transportation, who would later serve as Energy secretary from 1997 to 1998.
“The president asked who has relationships with who in the House and in the Senate. And we all did. … The president used his Cabinet very adroitly, much more than his predecessors,” said Peña, now a senior adviser to Vestar Capital Partners, a private equity fund.
Clinton’s Cabinet members were also a part of his failed health care reform push. Documents from the Clinton Library show Peña, Babbitt and then-Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary as potential points of contact for Democratic senators as the White House lobbied for support. (Click here for the document mentioning Peña; click here and here for the documents mentioning O’Leary.)
Cabinet members were also considered for playing offense by the Clinton White House.
Browner was mentioned as part of “a political strategy group” to respond to anticipated attacks on regulations after the Republican sweep of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections.
“Our regulatory agencies are headed by a number of bright, political savvy people,” wrote Michael Waldman, then a Clinton aide, dropping Browner and others’ names in a Dec. 14, 1994, memo.
“They can pull together a ready-to-go compilation of why their regulation has been both reasonable and good for the middle class,” Waldman wrote.
Griffin, now associate director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said Browner was particularly effective when combating Republican-proposed cuts to environment and safety net programs during the budget debates of the 1990s.
“She went around the country banging the shit out of those guys, and other than Medicare, the environment was our most effective weapon in that debate,” said Griffin, also a principal at Griffin/Williams, a management consulting firm. “She made the case on the impact of the environment not being treated on childhood diseases, like asthma.”
An aide to Babbitt also recommended that Clinton go on the attack against the Republicans, making the environment a “visible issue” that could help the president if he raised its profile in his 1996 State of the Union address.
That’s different from what Babbitt suggested for Clinton’s 1994 State of the Union speech.
The Interior secretary for both of Clinton’s terms, Babbitt said the president should push themes of “security and opportunity” but not necessarily the environment in a Dec. 27, 1993, memo.
“I would not be inclined to deal with environmental or natural resource issues as such,” wrote Babbitt, a former Arizona governor.
Energy and environmental honchos did not always win out with the Clinton White House, with more powerful agencies winning the day.
To help deal with the fallout from security breaches at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Richardson wanted to create a “security czar” for the Department of Energy. Richardson wanted an active military general, but the Pentagon was “resisting (‘Get a retiree.’),” counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke wrote in a June 1, 1999,memo.
“Richardson is right. This is a VERY important set of issues and justifies changing the rules to get someone impressive, someone on active duty,” Clarke wrote.
But the Defense Department won out. Richardson would pick Eugene Habiger, a retired Air Force general, for the post.
Richardson, who went on to be New Mexico’s governor, said “there was always interplay” between the departments.
The department heads would also attract unfavorable media attention.
A Jan. 17, 1997, document appears to outline potential questions from Tim Russert, then host of NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“The Clinton cabinet is once again the result of racial and ethnic bean counting. The choice of Pena was particularly appalling to Russert,” the memo says.
Peña, who was picked to head DOE at the time, said Russert never mentioned his concerns to him. Peña said he had experience dealing with the energy sector as mayor of Denver.
“Perhaps Tim didn’t know that I had exposure to energy very early on in my career. … I wasn’t an oil and gas executive, but I had an energy background,” Peña said. “I don’t know what Tim was alluding to at that time, but I stand by my record.”
Al Gore as ‘one of the guys’
Public perception was a concern for the Clinton White House, notably for Vice President Al Gore, who was preparing to run for president in 2000.
In one email, Ron Klain, then Gore’s chief of staff, said he wanted to “knock down” the idea that White House support for Gore was based on Clinton’s “legacy-notions” and that the vice president was “one of the guys.”
The White House was also prepared for attacks on Gore as his presidential campaign heated up, including on his environmental record.
One aide circulated and asked for a memo to be updated on how to respond to criticism of Gore’s ties to Occidental Petroleum.
The memo touted Gore’s environmental chops, noting that he would fight against offshore drilling on the coasts of California and Florida if elected president.
The Clinton Library could shed more light on the administration’s energy and environment dealings yet. A spokeswoman for the National Archives said that more documents from the library will be released to the public, though no release was scheduled for this week.