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Council on Environmental Quality To Be Replaced by Smaller Office

By Dan Fagin
Newsday

Surprising his allies in Congress and environmental groups, President Clinton said Monday that he would move to abolish the White House Council on Environmental Quality and replace it with a smaller office he said would have more clout.

Since its creation in 1969, the council has been the prime vehicle for raising environmental issues in the decision-making circles of the White House. But the council was ignored by former President Reagan, and had only limited influence under former President Bush.

In announcing the reshuffling Monday, Clinton said that environmental policy would instead be coordinated by a new, slimmed-down office that would be intimately involved in White House policymaking, rather than having a simply advisory role.

"The days of photo-op environmentalism are over,'' Clinton told reporters. Moments before he spoke, an aide had placed leather-bound books behind a White House podium to provide a more photogenic background for television cameras.

If approved by Congress, the shift will help Clinton fulfill two campaign promises: to cut White House staffing and to raise the profile of environmental issues.

And it would further expand Vice President Al Gore's hegemony on environmental matters, since his chief environmental aide would run the new office. Another ex-aide to Gore, Carol Browner, already has been named administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But there was no assurance Monday that Congress would go along with the plan. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who chairs the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, authored the law creating the council and successfully resisted efforts to abolish it by Reagan and by former President Carter. "Congressman Dingell told the vice president he'd take a look at the proposal, but there's no commitment,'' said Dingell spokesman Dennis Fitzgibbons.

Leaders of environmental groups were generally supportive. Some, however, said that Clinton should have kept the council and restored its clout.

"This basically returns the number of White House environmental staff back to the levels of the Reagan administration,'' when it went from 60 workers to 16, said World Wildlife Fund Chairman Russell Train, the council's first chairman from 1970-73. "We had a staff of 54 during the Nixon administration, and it seemed to me we could barely do the job we were doing.''

The council has a $2.8 million budget and 30 employees, but council spokesman Dale Curtis said that only about 15 will be retained.

They will report to the new Office on Environmental Policy to be headed by Gove's chief environmental adviser, Kathleen McGinty, 29. She will participate in the National Security Council, the National Economic Council and the Domestic Policy Council.

"Although it may appear technically to be a downgrade, I think it's really going to elevate the environment to a much higher status,'' said Elizabeth Raisbeck, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society.