07/17/2013 07:45 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Back to the 1990s: A Way Forward on the Environment

With the renaming of the EPA's Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters for former President Bill Clinton today, the two titans of late 20th century politics have finally taken their places along America's Main Street. There's an irony to the fact that the Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton Buildings are situated next to one another. Reagan, who more than anyone embodied the contemporary resurgence of the Republican Party, and Clinton, who resuscitated the progressive movement after a generation in the wilderness, were hardly ideological companions. But today, at a moment when Washington seems entirely mired in gridlock, their shared ability to move the ball seems now like a lost art.

There's a second irony as well. The popular hallmarks of President Clinton's eight years -- an economic boom, a balanced budget, a remade welfare state -- overshadowed his focus on environmental issues. While the Clinton Foundation's subsequent work on energy and the environment has garnered significant attention, few would have predicted when he left office that the nation's environmental regulators would clock in each day at the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building.

Environmental policymaking has always been a rough-and-tumble business. But we've reached a new level of stalemate. With the exception of the Safe Drinking Water Act, it's been more than twenty years since any of the nation's major environmental statutes have been tuned up. An honest accounting reveals that advocates on both sides would rather leave things be than risk what might emerge from a full-throated debate. And what we have to wonder is why, by contrast, were the 1990s so productive.

First, the hallmark of Clinton's approach was market-based regulation. Throughout the 1990s Republicans and Democrats moved away from the "command and control" approach that set exacting limits on the output of pollutants, preferring instead to reduce emissions by allowing firms that surpassed the standard the opportunity to sell allowances to their competitors. Since then, studies have revealed that market-based approaches managed to achieve the same results at roughly half the cost.

Second, Washington through the 1990s was able to move beyond what Clinton frequently called the false choice between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. No one would suggest that the 22 million new jobs created during his tenure can be traced back to graceful EPA regulations. But neither did his efforts to reduce pollution throw Americans out of work. He sought a proper balance. Despite strong protests, he set Clean Air Act standards at the level required to protect children regardless of the price tag. But he also recognized that more could be accomplished to improve the nation's drinking water by compromising with a group of Republicans adamant that costs be considered when setting new standards.

Finally, Clinton was more than happy to co-opt ideas from across the aisle if they served the country's broader interests. It had been the first President Bush's initiative to fight the scourge of acid rain with a cap-and-trade program -- but rather than resist this new Republican approach, Clinton doubled down and applied market-based programs to a suite of environmental challenges.

What's so frustrating for those of us interested in re-creating the dynamics that drove progress during the 1990s is the sense that the principles which allowed Washington to work back then -- even in more rancorous circumstances -- have become relics. Most worrisome, the broad ideological consensus over using market-based approaches was badly damaged by the unhappy combination of the banking crisis and highly polarized climate change debate. It seemed impossible, at a moment when the country was deeply suspicious both of public bureaucracies and private financing, to solve a global crisis with a strategy that empowered both. But no reasonable alternative has emerged in its place.

While acknowledging that neither Reagan nor Clinton got everything right, let's at least remember what made both men powerful and productive leaders. It wasn't that they strove to be ideologically pure, but that they were committed to making progress where they could, as the Clinton Foundation's energy and climate work continues to reveal. That the defining figures of the 20th century's last two decades grace adjacent buildings housing our nation's environmental protectors should serve not as reminder of how they bookend the political spectrum, but of how progress is generally made by embracing, rather than vilifying, the most potent ideas coming from across the aisle.