An Environmental Report Card on the 104th Congress

Policy Backgrounders | Energy and Natural Resources

No. 141
Tuesday, January 14, 1997
by H. Sterling Burnett


Criteria for Laws Analyzed and Grades Assigned

A large number of environmental laws were slated for renewal, proposed for revision, taken up in committee or merely introduced during the 104th Congress. Analyzing all of these laws would require a book, not this short study. Therefore, the author established some criteria for choosing which laws and bills to analyze. First, all of the laws chosen for analysis had broad-reaching national implications. Each bill and law chosen either directly and substantially, actually or potentially, affects the lives of most Americans. Laws such as amendments to the Magnuson Fisheries Act that only indirectly affect the general population and laws with largely local implications such as that granting federal funding to purchase New York-New Jersey's Sterling Forest were excluded. Second, the laws and bills chosen were cited by the new congressional leadership as environmental policy reform priorities. Third, at the outset of the 104th Congress, there was broad bipartisan agreement that all of the laws and bills chosen for analysis needed revision, renewal or repeal.

The grades were based on several criteria. First, is human health and environmental quality likely to improve under the new law or bill? Second, would the legislation improve the use of science in environmental policy? Third, did new legislation expand individuals' liberty and their opportunities to increase their wealth and satisfy their desires? Finally, would the new laws better respect citizens' rights and the U.S. Constitution?

These criteria are based on the assumption that the goal of environmental laws should be to protect human health and the environment. For example, expanding individual liberty and increasing economic opportunities is important to promoting environmental values because citizens in wealthier societies are generally healthier and better able to protect and improve the environment. On the other hand, critics have argued persuasively that many environmental laws are unfair and unconstitutional. These laws violate citizens' fundamental rights to private property and fair trial while they allow the federal government to undertake policies beyond its constitutionally limited powers.

Among the keys to meeting these criteria are reducing the role of the federal government in environmental policy, creating more flexible environmental laws and improving the incentives and information of decision makers. The first criterion can be met by handling problems with largely local effects at the local level. For environmental problems that have multistate or national implications, creating flexibility means limiting the federal role to establishing the standards to be met. Affected parties should be allowed to meet these standards in the least intrusive, most efficient ways. Finally, to improve the incentives and information driving environmental decisions, laws should protect and/or extend private property rights. Property rights are fundamental to a market economy. Prices established through free market exchange demonstrate the relative value that individuals place upon scarce environmental resources. Ultimately, prices regulate the use of environmental resources.

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