The GOP vs. The Environment?


[appeared in Investor’s Business Daily’s Editorial Page, A2, November 6, 1995]

The Republican drive to reform environmental law looks to be stalled. Last week, for example, the House backed off 17 proposed limits on the Environmental Protection Agency. Other reforms face similar trouble.

The problem, in the words of Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., is that “The Republican party is quickly becoming known as the anti-environment party.” So long as the GOP seems to just want to roll back environmental protection, Boehlert and his allies in both parties can make a powerful case.

But Boehlert’s answer–dropping reform efforts–is wrong. Instead, the new Republican majority should do what’s done on issues from welfare to Medicare: Present a clear alternative to the status quo.

Reformers should articulate their own long range vision for environmental protection. They must demonstrate a positive desire to use GOP principles to achieve these goals. They can show how free markets and limited government will work better than the sprawling bureaucracies now in place.

The need for dramatic change should be clear. Policies that effectively curbed pollution in the ’70s are too rigid and clumsy to deal with the concerns of the ’90s. The haystack environmental problems of yesteryear have been eliminated, while the needle-in-a-haystack environmental problems remain. New problems require new responses.

Conventional command-and-control environmental policies are no longer worth their costs. This year Americans will spend well over $150 billion to comply with pollution control measures. Yet many such rules no longer do much for the environment.

In some cases, these laws actually harm the environment. Hazardous-waste and species protection measures, for instance, can actually encourage increased waste production and destruction of habitat. Removing such perverse incentives is not anti-environment.

More broadly, reformers should aim to eliminate destructive subsidies and encourage markets to address environmental concerns.

Most environmental problems are not caused by market failures but by a failure to have markets. Republicans know that sound stewardship begins with private property. Their pro-environment agenda should thus include protecting property rights.

Regulatory approaches may sill be called for. But these should focus more on preventing harm to people and their properties, and less on prescriptive bureaucratic edicts. There is nothing pro-environment about generating paperwork or letting the federal government micromanage industry decisions.

This agenda should also move decisions out of Washington to the people who will bear the costs–and reap the benefits–of the policy decision. It makes no sense for Washington to set environmental priorities for every community in the nation.

Voters are ready to hear this message.

A January 1995 Time/CNN poll shows that 68% of Americans believe environmental regulations should be “subject to an analysis to determine whether eliminating that risk justifies the economic cost.” A May 1995 Roper Starch poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe landowners should be compensated when laws protecting wetlands or endangered species devalue their land.

Both policies are key to the GOP regulatory reform agenda.

Voters also sympathize with the drive to return many environmental decisions to the state and local level. President Clinton’s pollster, Stanley Greenberg, conducted a series of focus groups for environmentalists. He concluded that “For ordinary citizens, devolution is a way of making the environmental regime more responsive, more flexible and sensible.”

This is a message Congress’ reformers should push in the environmental debate.

Polls consistently show that Americans call themselves environmentalists. We believe in environmental protection. But Roper Starch found that the share of Americans who believe such measures “have gone not far enough” has dropped by nearly a third since 1992, from 63% to 43%. And the number who believe they “have gone too far” has more than doubled, from 10% to 22%.

Americans are ready for a pro-environment, anti-regulatory message. The GOP’s reformers just have to start sending it.