Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

A Long, Winding Road: A Consensus Is Slowly Building around the Nation on How to Improve Our Environmental Protection System

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

A Long, Winding Road: A Consensus Is Slowly Building around the Nation on How to Improve Our Environmental Protection System

Article excerpt

In January 1998, the Enterprise for the Environment (E4E) project released its final report, The Environmental Protection System in Transition: Toward a More Desirable Future.(1) E4E was a two-year consensus-building project aimed at building a broad, bipartisan agreement on improving the nation's environmental protection system. The project was chaired by William D. Ruckelshaus, chairman of Browning-Ferris Industries and former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and was endorsed by over 80 diverse, nationally prominent stakeholders.

The Pendulum Slows

In 1995, Ruckelshaus gave his memorable "Stopping the Pendulum" speech at the annual dinner of the Environmental Law Institute.(2) He noted that throughout its existence, EPA has suffered from a swinging pendulum of support and opposition. He said that the conservative backlash of the 104th Congress against what some regarded as intrusive and excessive regulation was yet one more swing. The pattern is clear: the anti-environmental push of the mid-1990s was prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the late 1980s, which was prompted by the anti-environmental excess of the early 1980s, which was prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the 1970s, and so on.

The most recent conservative backlash did not begin when the Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1994 election. The anti-environment pendulum swing began in the 103rd Congress in part in response to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. For instance, in its first two years, the Clinton administration sent to a Democrat-controlled Congress four major reauthorization bills and legislation elevating EPA to Cabinet status, and not one of these became law. Gridlock prevailed.

The gridlock of the 103rd Congress has largely continued in the 104th and 105th Congresses, with a few notable exceptions. At the same time, a slow but encouraging evolution in environmental policy is occurring at the federal and state levels.

In 1995 and 1996, the new Republican-controlled Congress sought drastic changes in environmental policy on three fronts: amendments to existing statutes, broad regulatory reform legislation that would override certain provisions of environmental and other regulatory law, and sharp cuts in EPA's budget. Nearly all of these efforts failed, with some of the legislation never reaching the president's desk and some of it deflected by threatened or actual vetoes.

In the area of broad regulatory reform legislation, the significant exceptions to this gridlock were the Small Business Regulatory Efficiency and Fairness Act and legislation on unfunded mandates.

Two sets of amendments to EPA's core statutes also became law. The Food Quality Protection Act overturned the infamous Delaney clause, an amendment to the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act that prohibited any pesticide residue in food if the pesticide was known to cause cancer in animals or humans. The amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act authorized $1 billion a year for the next seven years to upgrade deteriorating water systems. The amendments also include a right-to-know provision requiring public disclosure of chemicals and bacteria in drinking water. These two legislative accomplishments occurred somewhat miraculously at the close of the 104th Congress when Republicans realized they were paying a heavy cost for their original agenda. The passage of these amendments seemed akin to opposing troops in World War I sharing Christmas dinner and then returning to their respective trenches.

Both amendments passed with broad bipartisan support - indeed, the vote on the Food Quality Protection Act was unanimous - illustrating not only that consensus building and bipartisanship are still possible in these conflicted times, but also that they are prerequisite to moving the nation forward.

Regulatory Reinvention

As the legislative battles raged, EPA launched an administrative package of "regulatory reinvention" initiatives, which span a broad range of agency activities. …

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