Make a New `Contract for the Environment' the US Should Move Away from Costly Government Regulation That Supports Environmental Protection and Heed Examples Set by New Zealand and the Netherlands

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PROVISIONS in the United States House Republicans' "Contract With America" risk dismantling our federal system of environmental protection without creating an acceptable alternative. Yet, a return to political trench warfare by environmentalists and liberal Democrats will alienate the substantial majority of Americans committed to better stewardship but weary of partisan politics. Instead of drawing the battle line between the Contract and the status quo, they should propose a new approach that guarantees continued environmental progress while tackling conservatives' legitimate concerns over regulatory costs, red tape, and runaway litigation.

The Netherlands and New Zealand offer 21st-century blueprints for such a reform. Their groundbreaking environmental initiatives move well beyond our fragmented single-issue approach to environmental problems and our costly reliance on government regulation and enforcement. By holding producers accountable to comprehensive, long-term goals, rather than short-term regulatory mandates, these countries are improving their environment and their government.

THE Netherlands established their National Environmental Policy Plan (NEPP) in 1989. In a historic change of course, the government decided to prioritize environmental ends over regulatory means. Today, comprehensive goals guide the efforts of Dutch government, industry, and the public to create a sustainable economy in 25 years, or one generation. The NEPP was developed through public consultation and won unanimous parliamentary support - from the Christian Democrats to the Greens. The Dutch have also persuaded the European Economic Community to follow suit.

American critics will claim that such an undertaking harms economic competitiveness and costs jobs. Yet, both Dutch business and labor disagree; they firmly back the NEPP. The country's 80,000-firm strong Federation of Industries even sent its chief environmental negotiator to the United States to brief executives on the model. The Dutch private sector has already signed more than 50 nonregulatory, voluntary covenants with the government designed to lower emissions and improve resource efficiency. Voluntary covenants include formal commitments to specific targets, but also give companies the flexibility to incorporate new technologies and practices.

The covenant approach is working. The Dutch government kept existing environmental standards in place to safeguard against backsliding. But, liberated from the procedural and legal straitjacket of regulatory compliance, whole industries are now ahead of schedule in attaining the NEPP's 25-year goals.

Although less tested than the Dutch NEPP, New Zealand's Resource Management Act (RMA) of 1991 is a profound example of government reform. It, too, emerged through extensive citizen participation. Implemented by a conservative government, the RMA makes Republican and Clinton administration reform proposals look tepid in comparison. The RMA has replaced 57 separate resource-management, urban-planning, and environmental laws. It has also dramatically reduced bureaucratic confusion and overlap by consolidating 800 government bodies into 93, and by establishing 14 resource agencies, each fully responsible for the integrated management of an entire watershed.

Clearly, the Netherlands and New Zealand are not the United States. …