Whatever Happened to Environmental Policy Reform?

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The new Republican Congress roared into Washington and set out to change the rules of environmental policy. Environmental reforms were going to be based on risk assessment, cost-benefit analysis, less business regulation and smaller environmental agencies. Congress was going to prune back the oppressive bureaucracy and get the government off our backs.

Two years later, what has happened? Not much. The budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are little changed from previous years. The EPA's 1996 budget is only 1.5% less than its 1995 budget.

The flawed Endangered Species Act continues in force unchanged even though authorization for it has long since lapsed. The Safe Drinking Water Act, among the least controversial of the nation's environmental laws, has not been re-authorized. Wetlands reforms are still nothing but a promise. Commitments to improve individual property rights protections and to give more control over environmental matters to the states have largely gone unfulfilled.

Congress has even been unable to reform the one law widely cited by both Democrats and Republicans as perhaps the most flawed environmental program: Superfund.

So why have the reformers failed? First, there was an image problem. Republicans focused on the cost to business of environmental regulation. They talked about dollars and cents, efficiency, and decreased regulation, thus providing Democrats the opportunity to seize the moral high ground. Defenders of the status quo frightened the public by painting reforms as the abandonment of basic environmental protection. Talk about decreased business costs was no match for talk about threats to "children's health."

Then there were election year politics. The President and Congressional Democrats calculated that it would be better for their election prospects to bash Republicans for their lack of compassion than to support positive bipartisan environmental reforms. Democrats even refused to vote for environmental policies that they themselves had proposed and supported when they controlled the Congress.

Then came the pollsters. Republican pollsters found that the vast majority of voters consider themselves to be environmentalists. They also found that even Republican voters trust Democrats more than their own party on environmental issues.

But people who vote based on environmental issues generally think either that environmental laws need basic reforms that balance human needs with environmental protection, or that we must protect the environment regardless of the costs. The former group has largely supported reform efforts. Backing off environmental reforms threatens to alienate them. Voters in the latter group don't trust Republican efforts and attempting to gain their support is a losing proposition.

But the main reason for the failure of Republican environmental reform goes much deeper. It rests on the first rule of successful politics: you must present a positive vision for the outcome of your policies. While the reformers correctly pointed out the excesses associated with current environmental laws, they neither discussed environmentally appropriate goals nor provided a blueprint for attaining a better environment. Simply put, they ignored the "vision thing."

A positive environmental vision for the future is centered upon the solution to the tragedy of the Commons. You remember the tale: all the village cattle graze upon a jointly owned common. It is in the interest of each villager to add more cattle to his herd, since he pays no price to use the common. Soon there is no grass left on the common, the cattle die, and the village economy fails.

The solution? Give each villager an ownership stake in his portion of the common and he will graze only so many cattle as it will support. The village economy then prospers.

Instead of the government regulating the trout stream, let the trout fisherman manage the lands and trout will flourish. Let nature conservancies manage the bird sanctuaries and reap the profits of drilling for oil beneath them, and oil and fowl will peacefully co-exist. When the government bans the killing of elephants, poachers take them and the herds dwindle. Let the natives own the elephants, and hunters are permitted a share, but the herds will grow under the watchful eye of people who have a stake in their growth.

Free markets produce more wealth, and free people are the best environmental stewards. Wealthier societies have healthier populations and commit more resources to environmental protection than do poorer nations. Freedom of people and markets is not only compatible with environmental health, it is essential to it.

What the Republicans forgot is that beating up on regulators; no matter how well deserved; is no substitute for an environmental vision for the future.