NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 22, 2006

Congress deals with pollution in a two-step process: It announces popular objectives like healthy air, and then it delegates to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the hard work of making the rules that actually limit pollution, says David Schoenbrod, senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

The explanation for this two-step is that only an expert agency insulated from politics will do the right thing.  Yet, the EPA has never been able to abolish politics from the process, and it never will. And in trying, the EPA makes the environment worse.

To see why, consider the fight over leaded gasoline:

  • In 1970, the Clean Air Act was passed because voters demanded protection from air pollution. 
  • But the measure was no act of courage on Congress's part; the pollution control devices on new cars would be ruined by leaded gas anyway, and it did nothing to cut the 100 million old cars would still be using leaded gasoline after 1975.
  • Meanwhile, members of Congress were quietly lobbying the EPA to make no rule to protect health from lead; the agency began to move, but so slowly that, in 1975, more lead was coming out of tailpipes than in 1970.

If Congress made the pollution rules rather than outsourcing responsibility to the EPA, more would get done, faster. And members of Congress don't have to be scientists to produce decent pollution rules. No EPA administrator was a scientist from the agency's inception in 1970 to 2004.

The choice ultimately is whether we want decisions to be made by open votes in Congress or behind closed doors at the EPA.  Allowing Congress to claim credit for protecting health while shifting the blame to the EPA for the inevitable costs and remaining health risks, does not insulate the process from politics, it only adds to it.

Source: David Schoenbrod, "Saving Our Environment From Washington," Washington Post, September 21, 2006.

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