Develop a First-rate Communications Strategy: An Exclusive Interview with David Ridenour

Published September 1, 1999

A contributing editor to Environment News, David A. Ridenour has served as vice president of The National Center for Public Policy Research for the past 13 years. In that role, he oversees most of the organization’s economic, regulatory, and environmental policy programs. He hosts a regular coalition meeting on environmental policy, the Environmental Policy Task Force, which brings together representatives of most Washington, DC-based conservative and free market think tanks.

Recently, Ridenour testified before the House Subcommittee on National Economic Growth, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs on Early Action Crediting. He has also testified before United Nations General Assembly Special Political Commissions.

Ridenour’s articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily, The Chicago Tribune, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others.

A frequent commentator on environmental and regulatory affairs and other public policy issues, Ridenour is a popular guest on television and radio programs and has appeared on such shows as ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NBC Nightly News, and CNN’s “Earth Matters.”

Cohen: As you survey the political landscape less than a year-and-a-half before the 2000 election, what chances do you see for reform of environmental regulatory policy?

Ridenour: With control of Congress at stake in the coming elections, I don’t think Democrats are very eager to hand the GOP any legislative successes, particularly when it comes to regulatory reform. It makes it so much more difficult to label the Republican-led Congress as a “do-nothing” Congress when something is actually accomplished.

Cohen: Do you believe this issue will play a significant role in the campaign?

Ridenour: The environment certainly should play a significant role. Ordinarily, Republican candidates avoid environmental issues, believing their Democrat opponents have an advantage in this area. But this is no ordinary year. I suspect that the Republican nominee for President– whoever that may be–will see the environment as an issue he or she can win.

The recent controversy over the release of over a half-billion gallons of water from a dam at the height of a drought so that Vice President Gore’s photo-op would look good is certainly cause for Republican optimism. A Fox News poll conducted in the wake of “Floodgate” found that only 29 percent of Americans believe the Vice President’s environmental credentials are still intact.

Then there’s the Vice President’s book, Earth in the Balance. It is a gold mine for anyone wishing to paint the Vice President as an environmental extremist. It contains such gems as: “We internalize the pain of our lost sense of connection to the natural world, we consume the earth and its resources as a way to distract ourselves from the pain, and we search insatiably for artificial substitutes to replace the experience of communion with the world that has been taken from us.” Not exactly mainstream stuff.

Even if Vice President Gore wanted to prevent his book from being an issue in the campaign–and there has been little indication he does–he couldn’t. The book is scheduled for re-release by Houghton Mifflin Company just in time for the campaign season.

But Vice President Gore will also be eager to talk up environmental issues because he’s invested so much time over the past several years on these issues. These are issues on which he believes he has made a significant contribution. They are issues on which he feels most comfortable.

With both sides convinced they can be competitive on the environment, I see it as a major issue in the coming elections.

Cohen: Do you sense that reform advocates have learned the proper lessons from the failed attempt to address the issue in 1995?

Ridenour: Lessons were learned, of course, but most of them were the wrong lessons.

You may recall that polls conducted in late 1995 and early 1996 had indicated that public opinion was beginning to swing against the reformers. The Washington Post, for example, reported that a poll by Linda DiVall suggested that efforts to “roll back environmental laws could cost Republicans dearly at the polls.”

The lesson many would-be regulatory reformers drew from this was that their agenda was unpopular. The real message, however, was that the reformers had done a horrible job of communicating their message.

The DiVall poll in fact showed the public had turned against the caricature of the reform agenda, but not the agenda itself. Once poll respondents were made aware of reformers’ goals, 78 percent favored their hazardous waste clean-up plan, while a plurality favored their Endangered Species Act reform and Safe Drinking Water Act proposals.

Ironically, by retreating from their agenda, reformers made their situation even worse. By backing off, they not only left an open field for environmentalists to sway public opinion, but they sent the message that environmentalists were right all along when they claimed reformers were in league with big business to undo “25 years of environmental progress.”

I don’t think reformers in either the Senate or the House ever really recovered from this. They have continued to allow the environmental establishment to define what is and what isn’t in the best interest of the environment ever since.

Ultimately, the only way to win the environmental policy debate is to develop a first-rate communications strategy, one that clearly outlines what we hope to achieve and outlines what the stakes are for the average American.

Sometimes that will mean bringing the victims of excessive regulation into the public spotlight. Sometimes it will mean demonstrating that a particular regulation has a perverse, negative impact on the environment. Sometimes it will mean showing that regulations have a disproportionate, negative impact on the most economically disadvantaged in the nation–people on fixed incomes, the elderly, and minorities.

Any effort for reform of the nation’s environmental laws that is focused almost exclusively on communicating with people inside the Washington beltway is doomed to failure. I don’t think many reformers understand this.

Cohen: What advice would you give those candidates who advocate scaling back the regulatory state but who are afraid they will be branded “anti-environment”?

Ridenour: The best defense against “anti-environment” charges is preparation. I have the sense that many in Congress get flummoxed by charges they are “anti-environment” because they don’t have sufficient knowledge of environmental issues to discuss them with any degree of comfort.

It may be that reformers attempted to do too much by attaching 17 riders to the EPA appropriations bill limiting the agency’s activities. But this was certainly foolhardy in light of the fact that the most basic groundwork ¡ educating members on why the riders were important ¡ was never done.

The National Center has compiled a list of questions–what we called a “Regulatory Relief Matrix”–that we thought might be helpful in giving reformers the confidence they need to respond to charges they are “anti-environment.” The questions include: Does the regulation targeted for reform or abolition produce the environmental, health, and safety benefits it was intended to produce? Does the regulation have unforeseen, unintended negative consequences for the environment, health and safety? Are there other less expensive, more effective means of producing the same or better results? Are there opportunity costs of the regulation? Do the costs of implementing the regulation mean that insufficient resources are available for more dire threats to the environment, health and human safety? Is the federal government–or state and local government–best suited to administer the regulation? Are the benefits of the regulation worth the economic costs? What are the human costs of the regulation?

If we can answer these questions on every environmental and regulatory issue, we won’t have a problem handling anything environmentalists throw at us–including the charge of being “anti-environment.”

Cohen: How do you see the global warming debate playing out in Congress?

Ridenour: I certainly think that it is unlikely the Kyoto Protocol will be ratified, particularly in view of a recent American Geophysical Union poll showing that Americans are less concerned than they’ve ever been about global warming. According to that survey, only about 24 percent of the public is concerned about global warming.

Nevertheless, there are some politicians and businesses who want some insurance just in case the protocol eventually is ratified. And this poses a real risk for us.

Proposals for “Early Action Crediting” have been introduced by John Chafee in the Senate and Rick Lazio in the House. Those proposals would permit the President to offer emissions credits to companies making voluntary reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions prior to 2008, when the Kyoto Protocol is slated to take effect. The credits could then be used or sold during Kyoto’s first emission budget period.

One of the principal motivations behind early crediting appears to be a desire to build a pro-Kyoto lobby within the corporate community.

It’s no secret that the prospects for Kyoto’s ratification in the Senate are poor. Industry opposition has been a key factor. The White House and its allies on the Hill realize that if the protocol is ever going to be ratified, industry will need to be mollified in some way.

That’s where early action crediting comes in. Once a company earns early credits, the company would want the credits to be worth something–and they won’t be worth anything unless the Kyoto Protocol is ratified. Early credits are industry’s insurance against the possibility that Kyoto will be ratified. But buying the insurance makes Kyoto ratification more likely.

The Clinton-Gore administration has been using other means to build corporate support for Kyoto as well. Its FY 2000 budget proposal included tax incentives for hybrid automobiles; which may explain why Toyota, which has developed a hybrid car operating on gas and electricity, has endorsed Kyoto.

Cohen: Let’s shift gears and talk about regulatory reform. A number of bills have been introduced, but their sponsors readily admit they’re very modest in scope. Are these worth supporting? Or should we wait until political conditions are favorable for more extensive reform?

Ridenour: There’s nothing wrong with incremental reform, so long as we realize we haven’t achieved the ultimate objective. I think too often reformers are so anxious for a win–any win–that they forget about the big picture.

The political process is like a chess game. Every move we make now determines what moves will be available for us down the road. Before supporting an incremental reform, members of Congress should ask themselves whether the reform places them in a better or worse position to achieve their goals. Does the proposed reform advance the cause of broad regulatory relief, or does it serve the interests of just a narrow group of businesses? If reformers support very narrow incremental measures, they place the overall regulatory reform agenda in jeopardy by taking our biggest dogs out of the fight. They also should determine what effect, if any, the incremental reforms will have on the morale of our grassroots troops.

The early action crediting program is a textbook case of effective incrementalism employed by our opponents. It would not immediately achieve the Clinton-Gore administration’s goal of Kyoto Protocol ratification, but it would help create the conditions to make ratification possible. By offering early credits to those corporations reducing their emissions early, the program would give these corporations the incentive to lobby for Kyoto. It’s really a brilliant strategy.

For our part, Senator Shelby’s amendment to last year’s omnibus spending bill is a good example of incremental reform. There’s nothing sweeping about this measure. All it does is require those who do government-funded research to submit to the same Freedom of Information Act requirements that every government agency is required to submit to. Access to such data means we no longer need to take EPA’s word for it that government-funded research says we need more stringent air quality standards. We can read these studies for ourselves and perhaps even challenge EPA’s reading of the data.

Cohen: In the last few months, federal courts have overturned EPA’s new standards for ozone and particulate matter and tossed out a major wetlands regulation, the so-called “Tulluch Rule.” Are the courts now the most promising vehicle for regulatory reform?

Ridenour: As welcome as those rulings were, the courts can’t possible provide the kind of regulatory relief we really need. The courts ruled on those cases only because there were people with pockets deep enough to pay the legal expenses of taking the government to court. Many small businesses and individual property owners simply don’t have those kind of resources. I don’t think we want a system in which those of modest means and modest political clout shoulder most of the regulatory burden.

I think we also face a problem in relying on the courts, in that court decisions can only be as good as the laws on which they are based. The ozone and particulate matter ruling is a great case in point. The plaintiffs in that case argued, among other things, that the standards should be overturned because EPA had violated the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA), which requires a small business impact assessment. But EPA argued that it wasn’t required to conduct such an analysis because the states–not EPA–would be imposing any new regulations needed to comply with the new standards. The court ruled in EPA’s favor ruling that SBREFA applied only to regulations directly imposed by the agency. The ruling certainly underscored the importance of well-written, loophole-free legislation.

Cohen: In your ideal world, where would responsibility for environmental protection fall?

Ridenour: I would much prefer to see environmental authority in the hands of the individual, rather than with the courts or Congress or even the states.

As you know, state regulators can at times be as oppressive as federal ones. I’m sure you heard of the fellow who was threatened with a fine by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for building wood debris dams without a permit; the dams were actually the work of beavers. Or the New York couple that was fined for building a deck on their home that cast a shadow on a wetland. The upside is that some states are better than others.

I think the case can also be made that individuals make better environmental stewards than governments. One need only look at the condition of private land compared to public land to see this is the case. Roughly three-quarters of the habitat of rare wildlife is found on private lands, not public.

Nonetheless, transferring regulatory powers from the federal government to state governments would be a great start. It makes a great deal of sense, if for no other reason than local government officials will be more open to local input and local concerns. A local official who is indifferent to the suffering caused by a regulatory action he or she has taken will not keep his or her job long. The same is not necessarily true of federal bureaucrats.

Cohen: How do you think those of us who support regulatory reform and free-market environmental policies can be more effective?

Ridenour: By learning to communicate better. Some of us have the tendency to believe that just because we are fascinated by the intricacies of environmental policy that everyone else must be too. Of course, they’re not. Too often we use technical jargon, and we fail to use anecdotal information people can relate to. So we bore people to tears.

We also seem to be under a delusion that Americans actually read. We produce long policy reports that few people will actually bother to read. This can’t compete with the bumper-sticker slogans of the environmental movement.

Unless we become more media- and people-savvy, we won’t win this debate. That means producing shorter materials and learning to talk and write in language the average American can understand. Most importantly, it means communicating who we really are: people who sincerely care about the people who are being hurt by over-regulation and poor environmental policies.