September 30, 2020

Former Whitman aide speaks at forum

Eileen McGinnis, senior vice president at Whitman Strategy Group and adjunct professor of political science, spoke Thursday as part of the political science department’s weekly politics forum. McGinnis served as chief of staff for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman. McGinnis described her time creating policy at the agency and coming under attack from her own party for being, it claimed, not Republican enough.

McGinnis began her career in constituent relations for Gov. Tom Keane, where she worked her way up from doing “grunt” case work. She worked her way through the ranks and became a speech writer for the governor. She was later tapped by Gov. Whitman as her deputy chief of policy, and then chief of policy, for six years. When Whitman was asked by President George W. Bush to come to Washington as EPA administrator, McGinnis followed as her chief of staff.

McGinnis said she was surprised by the slow pace of policymaking in Washington. At the state level, policy is made much faster and on a much more regular cycle. During her tenure at EPA, only one piece of environmental legislation passed Congress and was signed into law, and that law was 10 years in the making.

“A lot of policymaking at the federal level is building coalitions (among various agencies),” McGinnis said.

McGinnis admitted she wasn’t as well prepared as she would have liked to be for the rough-and-tumble world of Washington politics.

Whitman spent her time at EPA “under attack” by her own party, which saw her as too liberal and not sufficiently conservative to head up the federal agency. McGinnis attributed the viciousness to the close 2000 election, which she saw the country as still reeling from when Whitman took office at EPA.

According to McGinnis, presidential advisor Karl Rove opposed her appointment as Whitman’s chief of staff, having heard that she was a radical environmentalist. In New Jersey, McGinnis laughed, she was considered quite conservative by environmental groups.

“Washington is a very vicious place,” she said. “We were viewed with suspicion by many in the Bush administration.”

While McGinnis worked to shape policy, she said her main role as chief of staff was as a “crisis manager” for the administrator. But she did give one case study of how environmental regulations and politics work at the federal level.

EPA was considering regulations to require General Electric (GE) to dredge the Hudson River as part of cleaning up Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB) in the river. EPA scientists claimed that it could be done safely, but GE lawyers claimed that dredging would pull up the PCB contaminants and make the situation worse.

Both sides were waiting for a report from the National Academy of Sciences studying the problem. When the report, which was over 1,000 pages long, came out, both sides claimed victory, saying the report supported their side.

In the end, GE agreed to spend $500 million on the river and adhere to strict performance standards for the cleanup. Dredging is two years behind schedule, however, stalled by a lawsuit from local community groups about the impact of the dredging operation on the surroundings.

McGinnis said the GE case told her that the science isn’t always the deciding factor, even in environmental cases.

“You’d like to think the science gets you the answer, but it doesn’t,” McGinnis said. Politics is always part of the equation.

McGinnis encouraged students to pursue a career in politics, saying she was “very fortunate” to do what she’s always wanted to do.

“(Politics) is a wonderful opportunity to change the world,” McGinnis said.

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