WASHINGTON — The White House approved a Transportation Department campaign to lobby against California's application for a waiver to combat global warming through auto emissions limits tougher than federal standards, a lawmaker charged Monday.
In a letter to James L. Connaughton, the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called the campaign an "inappropriate use of taxpayer money" and asked Connaughton to repudiate it.
Waxman said the campaign "sends an unmistakable message: The administration is trying to stack the deck against California's efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles."
Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the Council on Environmental Quality, defended the campaign as "outreach."
"Outreach by federal officials to state government counterparts and members of Congress on issues of major national policy is an appropriate and routine component of policy development," she said in a statement.
The Anti-Lobbying Act prohibits the executive branch from spending federal money to influence members of Congress or officials of state governments to support or oppose legislation or policy. Waxman's letter stopped short of accusing the administration of breaking the law.
Under the federal Clean Air Act, California is authorized to seek waivers for more stringent pollution standards because of its unique pollution problems. Once a waiver is granted, other states are free to adopt the tougher standards. About a dozen states are awaiting the waiver so that they can follow California's lead.
California filed its application, needed to enforce a 2002 state law requiring automakers to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2016, in December 2005. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson recently told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that he anticipates a decision by the end of the year.
The administration's campaign was discovered in June, just as the EPA was about to close the public comment period on the waiver. Waxman learned that a special assistant to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters had left a voice mail for a congressman urging submission of comments to the EPA opposing the waiver.
Waxman launched an investigation. He said he'd received internal documents and e-mails and had conducted interviews that indicated that the campaign had been initiated by senior administration officials and "coordinated with the motor vehicle industry."
Among the documents was an e-mail from Transportation Undersecretary Jeff Shane in May saying Peters wanted a plan "facilitating a pushback from governors" — especially Democrats — and others to the waiver petition.
Peters told her staff to call members of Congress and said she'd make calls herself, Waxman said. According to a May 25 e-mail, Peters received word from Marty Hall, the chief of staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, that it was OK for her to make calls.
Waxman said that when his investigators interviewed Hall, he had memory problems.
"At least 20 times during the interview, he responded to questions about his knowledge of the lobbying campaign with variations of 'I don't recall,' " Waxman said. But the congressman said investigators had learned from others that at least three senators, 24 House of Representatives members from Ohio and Michigan, and seven governors were contacted.
"We were hoping to solicit comments against the California waiver," Simon Gros, the deputy chief of staff at the Transportation Department, said when committee investigators interviewed him Friday.
The campaign was aided by the auto industry, which testified against the waiver before the EPA in June. The Auto Alliance provided a list of auto plants organized by congressional district, which was used to create a "target list" of House members to contact, Waxman said.
Not everyone was comfortable with the calls, including Heidah Shahmoradi, whose voice mail launched the House investigation.
She e-mailed Gros on June 7 saying that "we are a bit concerned about the conversation on this task" because "it appears to sound more like lobbying." She was told that the message had been cleared by the Transportation Department's top lawyer.
Waxman said there appeared to be coordination with the EPA, which he said would be "especially problematic because EPA is charged with making an independent and objective decision on the California application."
The Council on Environmental Quality sees no such problem, Hellmer said.
"The EPA administrator will be making an independent and objective decision based on the merits of California's petition and the record of public input before the agency," she said.