It’s 4 weeks into the Trump presidency, and already we’ve seen a deliberate attack, via both congressional and executive actions, against the Obama-era environmental agenda — and perhaps an even greater threat to the “American green state” (more on that later).
The confirmation of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an agency Pruitt sued more than a dozen times defending oil and gas industry interests, ended the week on a sour note for environmentalists and a large number of Democrat representatives opposed to yet another controversial Trump nomination. But perhaps the most far-reaching, and shockingly swift, course of legislative action in recent environmental politics history was the termination of the Stream Protection Rule.
In just 4 weeks, both House and Senate lawmakers were able to pass a joint resolution — with President Trump’s signature approval last Thursday — nixing the Obama-era stream ruling under the little-used Congressional Review Act (CRA). According to the Congressional Research Service, the CRA has several key advantages for those of its supporters, one being:
“…that if a joint resolution of disapproval is enacted, it not only invalidates the rule in question, but in most cases also bars the agency from issuing another rule in ‘substantially the same form’ as the disapproved rule unless authorized to do so in a subsequent law.” [emphasis added]
This little-known fact about the CRA makes it nearly impossible, then, for another president after Trump to introduce a similar Stream Protection Rule without bipartisan congressional support. What’s gone is gone — no more adding-or-subtracting to this table, based on the political party of the president alone.
And what’s more, Congress has promised to exercise the CRA, particularly against late-introduced Obama-era environmental rulings unfavorable for fossil fuel industries, in the near future with a sympathetic President Trump. Just how near, exactly? Perhaps in as little as 4 weeks.
To make sense of all this unnerving and break-neck environmental politics in recent weeks, I’m reading up on my history.
“American Environmental Policy: Beyond Gridlock” by Christopher McGrory Klyza and David J. Sousa, updated and expanded in 2013, has proven to be a rather interesting text of reflection in this topsy-turvy time of political history (see ‘Literature’ for more book publishing details). Written in an era when the “American green state” seemed to be drifting (albeit gradually) to a place of progressive environmental legislation, the book I think could use a serious update after this first year in Trump’s presidency. In short, 2017 has not been kind to a progressive environmental agenda.
Nevertheless, the book offers several points of note intermixed among swaths of case studies in American environmental politics, circa 1970-2006. Right away, Klyza & Sousa declare that “these forces [of congressional gridlock] are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, and that, given this situation, the president and the powers at his or her disposal will be of signal importance in animating environmental policy [emphasis added]” (2013, p. 16).
For years, bills and resolutions seemed to disappear amid all the politics of Congress (literal pun intended), including those aimed at environmental upkeep. I remember just last year, angered by gridlock and frustrated by inaction, wondering if Congress would get anything done in my lifetime! I have to wonder no more.
Klyza & Sousa certainly couldn’t have predicted just how far ‘beyond gridlock’ American environmental politics would be, 4 years after the book’s re-print. And yet, they’re absolutely right about the president’s power and importance, when it comes to shaping an agenda. President Trump came in staunchly opposed to Obama-era environmental rulings and actions, and set forth a very clear agenda to dismantle these attacks on business and energy industries. Like a faithful puppy at the heals of its owner, our Republican-controlled Congress set forth in January 2017 re-energized and motivated to get work done in all public policy facets, including the environment and its awash of grievances. Environmentalists are now turning to the courts system as a seemingly last-hour block against some of these highly politicized motives coming from Congress and the Oval Office.
This is all new, and not new.
I was surprised to read that “[w]hen George W. Bush entered the White House, his first rulemaking action was to put a 60-day hold on all Clinton rules, such as the roadless rule [a famously controversial forest-logging rule, discussed at length in Klyza & Sousa (2013)], that had not yet gone into effect” (p. 98). That’s something you don’t read about in environmental-group lamentations of Trump and the comeback of King Coal Congress. Although that’s not to say these concerns aren’t valid — I have many concerns as an avid environmentalist, myself — but it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t the only age of controversial environmental politics in American history. We live in a nation divided over many issues, and the environment continues to be a hotly debated one (global warming pun intended).
The authors go on to say that “[t]hese actions demonstrated just how tenuous it could be to make policy through rulemaking; a change in party control of the White House could unravel much of the policy work done through rulemaking, an unraveling that would be less likely if Congress had enacted the policies through the legislative process [emphasis added]” (p. 98).
Exhausted by political inaction in Congress, President Obama used his executive authority — just like every other president before him — to enact environmental policies he and his Administration felt were necessary. But unlike the executive rollbacks enacted by President George W. Bush in his first term, now we’re faced with a Congressional Review Act that’s a lot more silencing than rulemaking back-and-forth’s every 4 years.
More on the courts, the making of the “American green state” as described by Klyza & Sousa (2013), and the future security of National Monuments named under Obama … next time.