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U.S. Environmental Policy Part II: Policymaking Today

The policymaking process in the United States relies heavily on society’s desire for action.  This point cannot be underemphasized. Without gaining public support for an issue, the legislature has little political incentive to develop a plan of action.  The two primary ways of generating public support for an issue are 1) through organized groups who are able to educate others about the problem, and 2) through the media.

If an environmental campaign is successful, interest groups and elected officials will have the necessary information to both 1) understand the problem and 2) identify what policy measures will effectively fix it

In the U.S., a policy cycle begins with the creation of a course of action, followed by enactment of a law, and then actions that are designed to carry out that law successfully. Then, when any policy has been in place for a reasonable period of time, it should be re-evaluated to determine if it has achieved the original goals, what the costs were, and what changes, if any, need to be made. This was keenly pointed out by Vig and Kraft in their seminal book, Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, 2006).

While the job of writing effective environmental legislation falls to the Congress, the president – in this case President Obama — also has an important role to play. Beyond simply signing or vetoing a bill sent to him by the Congress, the president is involved in setting the policy agenda. For example, a president concerned with taxes, downsizing and meeting the needs of large businesses will likely have a very different set of goals he wants achieved during his term than will a president who wishes to put more emphasis on the environment and conservation of natural resources. With the right combination of public support, Congressional leadership, and bipartisanship, effective environmental regulations and laws can be made. By delegating staff and other experts to particular issues, and by working with Congress to reach a desired outcome, the White House can influence the shape of environmental laws. Of course, the process is often complicated by gridlock. Rarely – if ever – does a significant majority of legislators agree on anything. Bills may or may not even reach the floor for a vote, depending on the party in power, the ability to reach agreement, and seemingly inevitable gridlock due to stalling tactics.

In Washington, the actual job of carrying out the implementation of a policy falls on the different executive departments. While all departments are involved in environmental quality to varying degrees, major regulators include the EPA, Interior Department, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Agriculture or USDA. And, as part of the balance of power in the U.S., the judiciary inevitably becomes involved in challenges to environmental policy.

Environmental law – checks and balances

Jurisdiction and the wording of the law are never crystal-clear. Legal challenges help to define boundaries on the reach of the regulatory agencies. A timely example of this policymaking process at work can be seen in the discussion of climate change and energy usage.

The climate change example breaks down like this: We’ve known for years that our current energy economy, based largely on fossil fuels, is unsustainable. Burning coal and oil to generate electricity, heat our homes, and fuel our cars not only pollutes the air and water but also adds staggering amounts of carbon to the atmosphere and oceans, which leads to climate change and the destruction of ecosystems. Yet, the United States has done little over the past few decades to curb energy use and carbon emissions. As a nation we’ve lacked the critical threshold of vocal citizens demanding change, and we’ve lacked political will to generate more enthusiasm for change. Only now are we beginning to see a possible shift in this state of mind. More people are concerned about energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and the science has improved to the point where there is very little doubt that humans are the driving force behind this phenomenon. Also, the current president (who campaigned on a desire to combat climate change) along with a relatively sympathetic Congress, United Nations, not to mention Corporate Leaders for Climate Change, share many similar policy goals. He has an easier time setting the agenda than if the party makeup of the House and Senate was more conservative, as it had been just several years ago.

While the political will for something like the Kyoto Protocol did not exist in the previous decade, we now are looking at a somewhat more favorable environment for that kind of legislation. The House recently passed the so-called Waxman-Markey bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, by a vote of 219 to 212 (Govtrack.us 2009). While the bill’s fate in the Senate is far from certain, clearly the right combination of attitudes and leadership exist to make this possible. Should climate legislation pass, the other steps in the policy cycle must also be seen through. Simply setting standards will not be enough.

In the final analysis, U.S. policy processes for environmental regulation do represent the American democratic process.  An honorable legacy with our own children as well as our legacy as a nation is at stake.  The hope is that this fair, reasonable democratic process will allow for suitable, correct action from policymakers with regards to this legacy.

This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I can be read here.

Chris Watts currently serves as an Environmental Regulation Expert at Actio Corporation in Portsmouth, NH.  He is pursuing advanced studies in Environmental Science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.

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2 thoughts on “U.S. Environmental Policy Part II: Policymaking Today

  1. Good overview, but since it was published, the Climate bill died in the Senate, and the recent mid-term elections don’t bode well for climate change legislation with any sort of price mechanism on carbon emissions. That said, there are other factors at play, like global competitive pressure to capture market share for clean tech manufacturing. Also, a Republican-controlled House might still look favorably on some sort of energy efficiency policies or “energy independence” type policy. Might be time to write a “Part III” on this one?

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