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The New Congress and the Environmental Sustainability Agenda

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As the Republicans prepare to take over the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, there is little question that the effort to restore momentum to U.S. federal environmental programs will be set back. Fortunately, despite the prospect of a hostile House of Representatives, professional life in the U.S. EPA will not return to the bad old days of the Bush-Cheney years. Interior, NOAA and NASA will continue their crucial environmental work. The Republican-controlled House will cause the modernization of aging environmental laws to stall over the next two years. New problems, such as climate change, will need to be addressed under old laws like the Clean Air Act while Congress remains gridlocked. New resources for collecting and analyzing data on the state of the planet will not be made available. Still, as long as we have a President who understands the connection between environmental sustainability and economic wealth, there is a chance to make progress at the federal level.

During the Bush-Cheney years, much of the United States' progress in protecting our environment, saving energy and moving toward renewable resources was made at the state and local level. That trend will continue and gain strength because America's mayors and governors understand what the federal government seems to miss: Americans like to breathe, drink clean water and eat poison-free food. The environment is not optional. And environmental protection will not be delivered by the market alone; government must set rules and provide incentives and disincentives to influence the behavior of the market. I live in New York City and I can only imagine the city's eight million people driving the streets without traffic lights. Yes, we regulate traffic...and those lights limit our freedom to drive whenever we want--really, if government didn't operate the traffic grid around here, who would? The problem is that some regulation, like traffic control, is most effective at the local level, but some is best done at the national level. When the issue is national, as many environmental policy issues are, we need the federal government to act.

Take the example of electronic waste. What happens to your old laptop, iPod, cell phone, or PDA when it must be replaced? You toss it in the garbage. What happens to the toxics in that electronic device? You don't want to know. Over the past decade, many state and local governments have worked on electronic waste rules to regulate this very toxic waste stream. The problem is that these local rules force manufacturers to adjust to different standards depending on where they sell their products. This is regulation that needs to be national in scope, but we won't get national regulation of electronic waste with a Congress too busy at tea parties to legislate.

The new Republicans in the House might want to look back at the environmental experience of their hero, President Ronald Reagan. When President Reagan took office in 1981, he put an anti-environment crowd from the West in charge of the EPA and the Department of Interior. James G. Watt ran the Department of Interior and the late Anne Gorsuch Burford ran the EPA. By March of 1983, Gorsuch had resigned, and by November, Watts was out as well. Despite Reagan's overwhelming political strength (remember Walter Mondale?), he did not want to run for reelection in 1984 with these human symbols of anti-environmentalism hanging around his neck. Not only did Reagan get rid of both of these anti-environmental leaders, in May of 1983 he also brought back "Mr. Clean", EPA's first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, to run the agency. On the day of Ruckelshaus' return to EPA's offices in Southwest Washington's Waterside Mall, he was greeted by EPA staffers like a returning liberator.

Americans may mistrust large institutions and especially government these days, but they also understand the need for government regulation to protect their safety. The public's concern for safety--especially the safety of their children--extends to environmental protection. A half century of sustained attack on environmental regulation has had an impact, but it has not altered the strong support for environmental protection in all American demographic groups. Climate science may be hard for the average person to understand and even believe, but the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, brown water and smoggy air can be seen, smelled, felt and tasted. The Republicans running the House probably assume that an attack on environmental protection is good politics. They will discover that it is not. If the Republicans in Congress act on this assumption, they will provide the Democrats with a political opening that, if coupled with a recovered economy, may alter the balance of power in our nation's capital once again.

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