Environmental Protection and the States: "Race to the Bottom" or "Race to the Bottom Line."

By Graham, Mary | Brookings Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Environmental Protection and the States: "Race to the Bottom" or "Race to the Bottom Line."


Graham, Mary, Brookings Review


When Congress laid the foundation for today's environmental regulation in the early 1970s, the idea that states inevitably cut corners in pollution control and conservation to attract business was a powerful argument for national action. When industrial debris in Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire and oil from an offshore blowout blighted Santa Barbara's beaches in 1969, the incidents became national symbol of a "race to the bottom" in state and local politics.

Recently, this view has gained new support. Not long ago, the press carried graphic accounts of hog wastes washing down Virginia's Pagan River toward the Chesapeake Bay from a plant owned by Smithfield Foods, Inc., the East Coast's largest producer of pork products. Lax state enforcement of national water pollution laws "could create `pollution havens'" and "lead to a shift of manufacturing and jobs that would penalize the conscientious states," the New, York Times editorialized.

But the race to the bottom idea is too simplistic to describe the forces that shape state environmental policies in the 1990s. The idea is outdated for three reasons. First, evidence is by now overwhelming that businesses rarely decide where to locate or expand based on the strength or weakness of state environmental programs. Second, state politics have been transformed in ways that make it more likely that pollution and conservation issues will get a fair hearing, independent of federal action. Finally, and most important, public attitudes have changed. Today, states compete to gain prosperity in a fast-changing economy. After nearly 30 years of government action and scientific progress, government officials, business executives, and voters find that some environmental measures aid in that contest. There is growing evidence that some states lead in economic growth and environmental protection, while other states lag behind in both.

To call attention to these changes is not to deny that state and local governments face tough trade-offs, that businesses often lobby to weaken environmental rules, or that some polluters still try to beat the system. Hiring inspectors to enforce the law or buying land to protect a watershed is expensive and must vie for limited state funds with improving schools, building roads, and paying for Medicaid and welfare. Environmental issues continue to be contentious because they often do pit jobs against cleaner air or more conservation, and sometimes both choices offer economic benefits. When stakes are high, business, labor, homeowners, and other groups will fight for their interests. And, of course, there will always be cheaters.

Thirty years ago, the assumption that there was a race to the bottom among the states was important because Congress was debating the need for a national framework of environmental protection. That question is now settled. Mainstream Democrats and Republicans agree that air pollution, water pollution, and other environmental problems that cross state lines should continue to be controlled by federal rules. Because most of our daily attention is drawn to hard-fought battles at the perimeter of government authority, it is easy to forget that we have witnessed an exceptional event in the past three decades: the successful introduction of a new theme in national policy.

Today, the question of whether states shortchange environmental protection to attract business is important for different reasons. First, we have reached a turning point in national environmental policy in which some readjustment of federal and state roles is inevitable. Thanks in part to the considerable success of national laws aimed at controlling major sources of pollution and encouraging conservation on large tracts of federal land, public attention is now turning to problems that are harder to solve from Washington. The next generation of environmental policies will tackle widely scattered sources of pollution and conservation opportunities that affect farms and housing developments as well as forests and meadows. …

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