<em>American Environmental Policy, 1990-2006: Beyond Gridlock</em>

Review from Archesalumni magazine, Spring 2008

American Environmental Policy, 1990-2006American Environmental Policy, 1990–2006: Beyond Gridlock
David Sousa, professor of politics and government, and Christopher McGrory Klyza
408 pages, The MIT Press, mitpress.mit.edu

Amidst all of the controversies now surrounding the Endangered Species Act, it is worth noting that the law was enacted in 1973 on a unanimous vote in the Senate and a vote of 345-4 in the House, and was signed into law by President Nixon. Ultra-conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms voted for the Endangered Species Act! The ESA was one of 22 major environmental laws adopted between 1964 and 1980 in what has been called the “golden era” of environmental lawmaking. Buoyed by a mobilized public, favorable media coverage, and strong bipartisan support, environmental interests triumphed and ushered in the development of a new American “green state” committed to environmental protection.

Yet since those heady days, environmental reform has hit a logjam in Congress, say Sousa and Klyza, authors of American Environmental Policy, 1990–2006, and political science professors at Puget Sound and Middlebury College respectively. Growing partisanship on environmental issues, declining trust in government, the weakening of the liberal wing of the Democratic party, and public opinion, generally supportive of environmental protection but no longer motivated by perceived crisis to accept major policy changes, have all combined to yield gridlock in Congress. Despite the legislative gridlock in Congress, Klyza and Sousa argue, environmental policymaking in the United States is “vibrant and complex,” with a “variety of opportunities for action.”

The book—which one reviewer calls “the best book on environmental politics and American politics I have read in some time”—explores five non-legislative pathways on which significant environmental policymaking has occurred.

First, within Congress itself, legislators have used many unorthodox tactics for trying to achieve their environmental policy goals, from the use of appropriations riders to open timberlands to salvage logging, to budget reconciliation to press for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Second, presidents, who in the era of gridlock have become ever more important actors, have used unilateral authority to advance their goals, as when President Clinton designated “national monuments” under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to break impasses over wilderness designations, and they have increasingly turned to the rulemaking process, where, for example Clinton’s “roadless rule” protected millions of acres of national forest land, and George W. Bush’s revisions to the EPA’s new-source review program would have made major changes to air pollution policy.

Third, Klyza and Sousa argue that the courts, which have long been important players in environmental policymaking, have grown ever more important in the era of legislative gridlock, and explore how economic interests and environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity have tried to press their agendas in the judicial process, and how judicial appointments and the positioning of the government in environmental litigation have become important issues in environmental politics in the country.

Fourth, the book critically examines the emergence of “collaborative” approaches to environmental regulation and natural resource management, reviewing many experiments that have been undertaken in the executive branch and in communities all over the U.S. The authors see great benefits and some potential in these experiments, but they express considerable skepticism about them as well, arguing that too often important interests are excluded from these collaborations and that, without new laws creating the flexibility to pursue collaboration, these experiments cannot make much progress.

Finally, Klyza and Sousa investigate the rising importance of state governments in environmental policymaking, highlighting actions that California, Washington, and many other states have made to address problems that Congress just can’t tackle due to gridlock.

The authors argue, then, that legislative gridlock has not generated policy gridlock on the environment, as environmental policy initiatives have been pushed onto non-legislative pathways. There is a great deal of vibrancy and creativity and instability in this policy area.

Yet Klyza and Sousa raise several important concerns about environmental policymaking “beyond gridlock.” They worry about the problems of legitimacy and accountability of environmental policy choices too often made on pathways that are not well understood by most citizens—in agency rule-making processes, by executive orders, on hidden appropriations riders in Congress, by unelected judges, by bureaucrats in cooperation with land owners in situations in which the public interest may not be well represented. The authors would prefer that Congress find ways to act to reform the environmental laws to make them more efficient and effective, and to add new statutes to address emerging environmental problems not imagined in the 1960s and 1970s. But this seems out of the question for the time being, and so we are left battling out some of the most contentious issues of our time outside of the Congress and along the many paths around gridlock that Klyza and Sousa illuminate.

The book ends on a note of optimism that is in short supply in the environmental arena these days. Klyza and Sousa argue that one effect of the legislative logjam of the last 25 years has been to lock into place many recent laws, most of which represented victories for environmentalists. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the ESA, and other environmental laws remain in place. Whatever their weaknesses, these laws—representing great victories for the greens—have stood against stiff challenges from the right for nearly 30 years, and their mandates continue to shape modern policymaking. In many policy areas, these laws create a “green drift,” a slow, halting, and contentious movement of many policies in the direction favored by environmentalists. The great exception to this of course is global warming, but the current debate over whether to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant may someday drag even that “wicked problem” into the ambit of the golden era Clean Air Act, creating an opening for aggressive federal action.