Environmentalism’s Legal Legacy

A Quantitative Analysis of Legislative Activity

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Environmental activists, policy scholars, and others claim that the environmental movement is in decline, suffering from attacks on the right on Capitol Hill and from the White House in recent years. Yet given some distinctive attributes associated with this issue, the progressive environmental cause is uniquely situated to ensure that it receives considerable attention in Washington. The result has been an uncommon expansion of government activity in a single issue area. And despite claims to contrary, progressive environmental policy making has continued to gain ground even in recent times—even under Republican leadership.

This paper highlights legislative expansion of environmental law. It uses several datasets to document the growth of the environmental legal legacy. First, an analysis of congressional vote scoring by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) reveals that environmental pressure groups do relatively well even in a subset of close votes scored—winning a majority of the time in eight out of 17 congresses and winning 43 percent of these votes overall. It does indicate that environmental groups faced some real challenges in recent years, but it does not reveal how that affected public policy. The LCV scoring also shows that environmental groups are involved in policy making at a very detailed level.

Two additional analyses reveal the importance of environmental issues vis-à-vis other issues on Capitol Hill. The fi rst focuses on congressional committee actions that produced public laws during 12 congresses.  This analysis showed that environmental committees remained a center of legislative activity throughout the timeline studied, and that activity reached high points during the 1990s after the Republicans gained a majority in Congress. This result contradicts claims that the 1990s represented an age of gridlock because of challenges from the right. The data show that during the 1980 and 1990s, Congress produced a steady stream of environmental public laws.

Another analysis in this paper accessed all public laws in the THOMAS Congressional Database for each of 16 congresses (1972-2004). These laws were each manually coded by issue topic. These data reveal that environmental issues—excluding symbolic laws—experienced more activity than any of the other categories, even outperforming the mega-issue categories of commerce, social and public welfare, and defense. Analyzed over several congresses, these data showed that the oft-cited “gridlock” in environmental policy making simply did not exist.

This analysis shows further that the majority of these environmental laws possessed tangible policy implications. Further, it revealed that these laws, by and large, moved the issue in a progressive direction—even during periods in which Republicans challenged environmental policy programs.

Together these analyses demonstrate an impressive legacy for the environmental movement. While the environmental movement has experienced some challenges in recent years, major initiatives overhauling and redirecting environmental policy in a more conservative direction have largely failed. In the end, policy making trends favor the expansion of environmental law in a largely progressive direction.