H.R. 2018 Would Undermine the Clean Water Act and Should Provoke Backlash

07/13/2011 02:10 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

Back in 1995, the last time conservative Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, one of the first laws they attacked was the Clean Water Act. As early as today, the House will vote again to undermine that 1972 landmark law, and I hope the results will be the same: a public backlash that stalls environmental rollbacks.

The measure the House is considering this week (H.R. 2018) is narrower than the more comprehensive rewrite of the Clean Water Act that House Republicans failed to get enacted in 1995, but it's just as destructive. The bill targets the very heart of the Clean Water Act: the notion that a federal backstop is needed to ensure that states don't give a pass to polluters.

It's not hard to understand why leaving clean water policy entirely to the states doesn't work. First, waters don't follow state boundaries. Pollutants that are put in the waters of one state don't stay in that state, and indeed may do more damage downstream as pollutants accumulate. A water policy that is, in effect, based on the theory that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" will fail pretty quickly. Second, state politics often favor narrow company interests at the expense of the broader public. Companies can threaten to move to other states, and state campaign finance laws are often weak.

This isn't just a theoretical conclusion. Prior to the enactment of the Clean Water Act of 1972, we had clean water laws on the books, but they weren't very effective because the federal government had little authority. We have more drinkable, fishable and swimmable waters today, in part because we finally had a clean water law that didn't let states just flush their wastes downstream or do whatever their local companies found most convenient.

So why do we now want to undermine a successful law based on sound and proven principles? Each of the two sponsors of the bill, Reps. John Mica (R-Fla.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), has a bone to pick with a particular federal ruling on clean water. Mica is upset that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is trying to limit agricultural runoff in Florida, a decision made under the George W. Bush administration. Rahall is annoyed that the EPA won't sign off on blowing the top off every single mountain in West Virginia and dumping the resulting waste into the state's streams.

But even if one agreed with Reps. Mica's and Rahall's complaints, it's not clear why the response would be destroying the Clean Water Act. The Mica-Rahall response is the equivalent of losing in court and, as a result, trying to eliminate the entire judiciary. Surely, there are more targeted approaches that they could take to pursuing their interests -- valid or not -- than making it more likely that every American will be faced with more water pollution and fewer ways to stop it. As the non-partisan Congressional Research Service put in a new report about the bill, "[I]t is highly unusual for Congress to advance legislation that would broadly alter the federal-state partnership in order to address dissatisfaction with specific actions by EPA or another agency."

You'd also think that a bill of this import would be getting a lot of scrutiny on Capitol Hill, but this bill is being rushed to the House floor without any hearings on the measure and without a subcommittee vote. Apparently, the Republican leadership doesn't think that more scrutiny would help their side. And Reps. Mica and Rahall are a formidable team: they are the chair and ranking Democrat of the Transportation Committee, a panel that other members are especially loathe to cross because it controls money for their local highways.

I know this all too well. Back in 1995, I was the chair of that panel's Water Subcommittee, and I took the lead in opposing my powerful chairman as I worked against the Clean Water Act rollback he had proposed. It's not a pleasant position to be in, but many members were willing to take on the chairman once they realized how much was at stake. That's what needs to happen again.

In the end, in 1995, we lost the battle, but we won the war. The water rollback bill passed the House, but by a smaller margin than expected, and by less than the two-thirds needed to override a veto. The press weighed in with numerous editorials excoriating the bill. As a result, the Clinton Administration and the Senate (then under Republican control) stepped up opposition to the bill, and it never went any further.

Moreover, the public response to the rollback gave momentum to the pro-environmental forces, which started winning votes a few months later. The first vote the Republican leadership lost in 1995 was an EPA spending bill that was weighed down with 17 anti-environmental riders, four of them borrowed from the clean water bill. After that, environmental rollbacks were an uphill battle.

It's sad that we have to repeat all this now, with a new class of conservatives, filled with even more irrational exuberance, trying to undermine basic environmental protections, and led again by some senior members who should know better. But I hope the rest of the story is also repeated, with the scale and scope of the rollbacks waking up the public and leading to the tide being reversed. With an EPA spending bill pending that has more than 20 anti-environmental riders this time, that tide couldn't be reversed soon enough.