The executive branch: the blind eye of power

Published August 1, 2000

Why is everybody always picking on the Clinton-Gore administration for its environment policy?

1. It is the only administration we have at the present time.

2. The administration–the executive branch of government–controls environment policy, because that authority has been ceded to it by Congress.

3. Distant, irrelevant, and ignorant (meaning, to have ignored the facts) federal management of environment policy has been a disaster.

For those who might think environmental mismanagement at the federal level is a Republican-Democrat thing . . . trust me, it’s not.

The most environmentally destructive agency in government, the Environmental Protection Agency, was created by Richard M. Nixon. A Republican.

The administration that ordered the most land off-limits to human use, through the creation of national monuments, was that of Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.

Much of the vague, omnibus legislation that currently plagues environment policy-making was signed into law by Republicans Ronald Reagan and George (Herbert Walker) Bush. Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton bear some responsibility for this part of the mess, too.

How did we get to the point where nameless, faceless bureaucrats, appointed by whichever party currently resides in the White House, make often ill-advised environment decisions?


Representatives and senators of both parties pretty much ran for cover when the “environmental” movement got rolling in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Prior to that time, care of the environment was called conservation and generally thought to be the responsibility of local communities and individuals.

The establishment and empowerment of EPA is a good example of how Congress took itself out of the environmental picture. EPA was designed as a largely autonomous agency, reporting directly to the President.

Over the years, Republicans and Democrats in Congress passed, and Republican and Democrat Presidents signed into law, a series of “enabling” acts: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Food Quality Protection Act, Superfund, and a couple of pesticide acts. They share a fatal flaw: They lack specific, precise, and limited direction. They have given EPA nearly free rein to regulate as it pleases, often in contradiction of its own scientists.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case this fall that will determine whether the laws are so vague as to constitute an unconstitutional delegation of powers by Congress. A lower court has already reached that finding. If the Supreme Court upholds that decision, our decades-long “system” of regulatory government by executive branch agencies could be stood on its head. But that hasn’t happened yet, and the Court has given EPA broad leeway in the past.

Until and unless the Supreme Court shakes things up, EPA, the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the whole array of environmental regulatory agencies operate under the direct control of the President and Vice President–whomever they may be at any point in time. It is the executive branch that appoints the secretaries of departments, chiefs, deputies, administrators, directors, and thousands of staff members who make and execute environmental regulations and policies.

When those bureaucrats make environmental policies that do more harm than good, ultimate responsibility for their mistakes rests with those who run the executive branch of government. For the past seven and a half years, that has been Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Previous administrations, both Republican and Democrat, didn’t necessarily fare better. And next year, either the Gore-whomever administration or the Bush-whomever administration will take over. We’ll just have to see what happens.

But regardless of which party is in power, it is an enduring fact that the federal government doesn’t do many things well. There are likely to be more things going wrong than right. As in the past, much of what is done to improve and protect the environment will be done by states, communities, and private citizens.

Is there hope in all this gloom and doom? Sure. The Supreme Court may decide our system of regulatory government constitutes an illegal delegation of powers, putting that authority back in the hands of congressmen we can vote in or out of office. Congress may vote to devolve management of environmental affairs to states and communities.

You see, it’s not that Republican and Democrat federal office-holders are bad people. We know many from both parties: They are bright, honest, well-intentioned, hard-working people. But it is virtually impossible to address environment issues when one is physically removed from the situation and insulated from the effects of government policies.

We have no idea who is going to win the election this November. We can be sure, however, that without dramatic change in where environment policy is managed, next year someone else will be taking the heat.

It isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing, it’s a Washington thing.