It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Reagan, Gingrich, Bush — and Now Trump. This is a battle we’ve fought before.

As the choice of Scott Pruitt to head EPA confirms, we’re about to face a radical attack on environmental protection. We’ve seen this movie before. Three times, actually, starring Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush. So this feels in a way like the fourth installment in a horror film franchise. Call it “Return of the Reg.-Eating Zombies, Part IV.”

Here are some quotes from the 1980 and 2016 Republican platform. They’re pretty hard to tell apart:

“Another proposal long advocated by our Party is the drive to encourage the entrepreneur by reform of the regulatory laws which stifle the very life of business through fines, threats, and harassment. Republicans realize the immediate necessity of reducing the regulatory burden to give small business a fighting chance against the federal agencies.”

“It is long past time for just tinkering around the edges of a bloated and unresponsive bureaucratic state. Its poorly managed programs, some begun generations ago, are ill-suited to meet present needs and future requirements.”

“Government regulation produces many indirect immeasurable costs as well and has led to increased bureaucratization of industry. Regulation also restricts personal choices, tends to undermine America’s democratic public institutions, and threatens to destroy the private, competitive free market economy it was originally designed to protect.”

“We propose to enact a temporary moratorium on all new federal regulations that diminish the supply of goods and services and add significantly to inflation. Such a moratorium will be consistent with the goal of achieving a safe and healthy working environment. We shall work to reduce substantially the regulatory and paperwork burdens on small businesses.”

If you’re curious, quotes 1 and 3 are from 1980, 2 and 4 from 2016.  The GOP has been nothing if not consistent in anti-regulatory zeal. And there was another installment in-between, represented by Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Republican Revolution” in the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, Gingrich turned out to be one Donald Trump’s earliest, most fervent supporters.

The first installment in the series was in 1981. About a month before the election, the first edition of my environmental law casebook with Roger Findley had appeared in print. When Reagan was elected, I remember one of my colleagues wittily telling me that at least the book could still be used for legal history courses. I suspect now that the remark was meant in sympathy. The colleague’s son went on to take a leadership position in a major environmental organization and serve in the Clinton Administration. But at the time, the joke had real sting. It didn’t look like there was going to be much left of environmental regulation by the time Reagan got done with it. At the very least, it seemed likely that the major environmental statutes would be dramatically pruned. Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch, an inexperienced arch-conservative, to run EPA. To run Interior, he picked James Watt, an anti-environmental zealot who seemed to view the very existence of wilderness as a personal affront. Within a couple of years, however, both of them had run aground and left office, to be replaced with more pragmatic professionals.

The second time was 1994. Newt Gingrich’s Republicans had just won control of the House of Representatives, based on what they called the “Contract with America.” The “Contract” called for an assault on federal regulation, and Gingrich & company did their best to comply. But it turned out that the public was less enamored of increased pollution and wilderness destruction than they were. They too backed down, helped along by some clever maneuvering by Bill Clinton to make environmental regulation more market-friendly.

The third time was 2001. George W. Bush had taken office, posing as a moderate. Once in office, he cast aside his moderate garb, abandoned a campaign pledge to regulate CO2, and launched his own assault on environmental protection. His path was laid out by a task force directed by Dick Cheney – a task force dominated by the fossil fuel industry. Having learned from the Gingrich and Reagan experience, Bush generally didn’t seek large, highly visible changes in environmental statutes. Instead, he operated under the radar, expanding regulatory loopholes, stalling mandated rules, and cutting enforcement to the bone. His EPA was not infrequently slapped down by the courts for ignoring statutory language or scientific evidence. The end result was to stall environmental progress, but not to derail it in the long-term.

So today is the fourth installment. Much about the political dynamic has remained unchanged. The Republican deregulatory platform, vociferously endorsed by Trump during the campaign, has remained unchanged. So, by and large, has public support for environmental protection. All of that suggests that we might get the same outcome, with a standoff between environmental and environmental forces.

But some things have changed, as well, in both directions. Trump promises to be a more disruptive political force than his predecessors, and the GOP as a whole has moved in a more radical conservative direction, making it harder for defenders of the environment to find allies in Congress. On the positive side, the Democrats may be more unified in opposing this program, given the virtual extinction of the Southern wing of the Democratic Party. For better or worse, the country is far more polarized than in 1981, 1994, or 2001.

There’s no guarantee that this fourth anti-regulatory assault will cause as little long-term damage as its predecessors. But there’s at least reason to hope that like the others, it may be worn down by a combination of guerrilla warfare and pro-environmental public opinion. The key will be mobilizing the general public, which generally favors environmental protection but only rarely views it as a pressing political issue.

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Reader Comments

8 Replies to “It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again”

  1. Dan, as long as democratic politicians, and academics keep marginalizing the working class, and the public, we shall never be able to adapt in time.

    We keep learning without thinking, and thinking without learning, another lesson in history ignored at our increasing peril.

    We even continue to marginalize, fail to think about and learn from the warnings in our own CALIFORNIA magazine 2006 Global Warning issue:

    http://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/september-october-2006-global-warning

    1. Anthony said;
      “…..we shall never be able to adapt in time…..”

      Dear Anthony,
      There is plenty of time to adapt. I adapted twenty years ago, its easy. Some folks will never adapt.The climate doesn’t care whether we adapt or not. We are all going to die and it is far more important that we nurture our soul and not worry about the mundane affairs of this temporal world that is full of sin and malice. Have a good day.
      Merry Christmas !!!

    1. That is a laughable characterization of the House Report, which itself is ridiculous in the way it frames these issues.
      The story here is that the DOE reallocated budget priorities toward climate change action and away from other programs that they didn’t see as high priority.
      If that’s the best they’ve got, it just shows how much integrity the administration has had.

  2. Democrats and scientists have had decades to prevent the current out of control acceleration of the Keeling Curve and have totally failed.

    All they have proven is that they are just as bad as the republicans and flat earthers when it comes to selling out their integrity to gain short term wealth and power at the expense of the human race.

    The most damning proof of this fact of life is that Edward Teller told us in the 60s that we would have fusion energy power production to meet the needs of humanity by the end of the 20th century, but the Ivory Tower Powers That Be chose greed.

    Once again, history that documents repeated failures to meet the challenges of change by politicians and intellectuals that have now produced the greatest threat to the human race in history.

    And our social scientists, neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists don’t have a clue about how to prevent our continuing self-destruction or they would have implemented the solutions by now.

    1. Anthony said;
      “…..our social scientists, neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists don’t have a clue about how to prevent our continuing self-destruction…..”

      Good point, this list should also include the California Environmental Bar.

      1. BQRQ, the fact is that there are a lot of groups that should be on that list.

        Our greatest failure is that we failed to learn how to communicate in conversations with real people outside our Ivory Towers.

        Hillary and the DNC learned that the hard way in the latest election, but academicians are the root cause of this failure.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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