Neil Gorsuch’s mother once ran the EPA. It didn’t go well ~ The Washington Post

A portrait of Anne Gorsuch, the EPA’s first female administrator, hangs in a hallway inside the agency’s headquarters in Washington. (Brady Dennis/The Washington Post)

By Brady Dennis and 

Chris Mooney

February 1, 2017

Neil Gorsuch is the first member of his family chosen for a seat on the Supreme Court, but he isn’t the only Gorsuch nominated by a U.S. president to a key government post.

His mother, Anne Gorsuch, served as President Ronald Reagan’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the first female leader in the agency’s history. But her short, tumultuous tenure was marked by sharp budget cuts, rifts with career EPA employees, a steep decline in cases filed against polluters and a scandal over the mismanagement of the Superfund cleanup program that ultimately led to her resignation in 1983.

Anne Gorsuch — like Reagan then and President Trump today — was a firm believer that the federal government was too big, too powerful and too eager to issue regulations that restricted businesses.

As a result, she slashed the EPA’s budget by nearly a quarter and, according to a Washington Post story at the time, boasted that she had reduced the thickness of the book of clean water regulations from six inches to a half inch. She filled various departments at EPA with subordinates recruited from the very industries the agency was supposed to be regulating.

She also made quick enemies.

“The big mistake Anne Gorsuch made when she first came in was she sort of bought into the rhetoric of the campaign,” William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator under President Richard Nixon and the man who eventually returned to restore morale after Gorsuch’s resignation, said in a recent interview. “She treated a lot of people in the agency as the enemy, and they weren’t. But within a week, they were. … It was not a pleasant place.” (A Doonesbury comic strip story line from 1982 depicts an EPA employee out on a ledge, threatening to jump.)

A Doonesbury cartoon from Jan. 27, 1982, underscores Anne Gorsuch’s stormy tenure at EPA. 

That unpleasantness was clear in a story that appeared on the front page of The Post on Sept. 30, 1981:

Budget cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency will strip 3,200 personnel of their jobs by the end of 1983, eliminating 30 percent of the agency’s 10,380 employees at a cost of $17.6 million just for severance pay.

The cuts are so massive that they could mean a basic retreat on all the environmental programs of the past 10 years, according to agency sources and administration critics. At the same time, divisions between Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch and career agency staff over her approach to policymaking have all but reached open warfare.

One EPA employee from the era, mechanical engineer Dennis Tirpak, worked on the issue of acid rain and would later go on to work on climate change. Although he said that his own career didn’t suffer at EPA during the Gorsuch era, Tirpak remembers that the overall feeling at the time at the agency was “anxiousness, because it was the first time that the agency was really under a lot of pressure with the new administration to really cut back regulations and to cut back on personnel. And it’s really the Congress that protected the agency at that time.”

Neil Gorsuch was a teenager when Reagan nominated his mother to lead the EPA. Her appointment meant uprooting her son from Colorado to Washington, where he graduated from Georgetown Prep, an all-male high school in Bethesda.

He went on to graduate from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and his career as a judge appears to have only occasionally touched on environmental issues.

“I think that he doesn’t have a lightning rod case on a particular environmental program,” said Brendan Collins, an attorney with Ballard Spahr who works on environmental cases on behalf of energy companies. “He has had cases in which he has ruled in favor of the agency, including the agency’s ability to depart from its guidance, to change its mind, so to speak. And from that perspective, he hasn’t shown himself to have any flagrantly anti-environmental skeletons in his closet, at least not that I’ve been able to identify so far.”


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