Gridlock in Congress

Six main factors lead environmental policy making to become gridlocked in Congress: increased partisanship, a weakening of liberalism, trends in public opinion, increased interest group mobilization, more pervasive media, and the changing nature of environmental problems. Each factor is discussed in turn.

Increased Partisanship

There was remarkable bipartisanship on the environment in the golden era. For example, the vote on final passage of the ESA of 1973 was unanimous in the Senate and had only four dissenters in the House of Representatives. The bipartisanship soon began to change, however. According to the League of Conservation Voters, in the mid-1970s Democrats in Congress voted proenvironment 15 percent more often than Republicans. By the mid-1980s, that figure was in the low 30 percent range; it was more than 50 percent by 1994; and since 2000, Democratic voting for the environment regularly exceeds Republican scores by more than 60 percent.1 What was once a low-conflict issue in Congress has become one of the nation's most partisan issues.

The Weakening of Liberalism as a Force in Political Life Although there is now a lively debate about the future shape of the postindustrial Democratic Party, at least since 1980 the national party's liberal wing has been a frail political force. Its demography has changed. The competitive strengths of the parties have shifted. Organized labor declined, and the business community has become a dominant political actor. In addition, powerful intellectual assaults on some of the legacies of policy liberalism have combined to create a difficult political environment for activist liberalism, which has also been racked by internal divisions.

The wave of environmental laws that peaked in the 19 70s followed hard on other major statutes that expanded the functions of the federal government, including Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, and President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. At that time, public trust in government was only beginning its steep descent, and it was easier then than now to make the case that large-scale federal intervention was necessary and was likely to alleviate pressing environmental problems.

The deterioration of trust has sharpened the right turn in policy debate, making major expansions of the federal government's domestic policy role—always difficult to achieve—even less likely. If expanded governmental power is needed to tackle global warming, the deterioration of trust and the weakness of the liberal impulse will limit the nation's ability to address those problems.

Trends in Public Opinion on the Environment

The electoral successes of Republicans have come despite, not because of, the Republican Party's positions on environmental issues. Public support for environmental protection remains strong. In a 2005 poll, 70 percent of Americans identified themselves as "active environmentalists" or "sympathetic to environmental concerns," and 24 percent described themselves as neutral. Only 4 percent called themselves "unsympathetic" to environmentalism.2

Although general support is high, environmental protection has low salience with voters. Few citizens rank environmental issues among the top concerns they carry into evaluations of government performance or candidates for office. Still, general levels of public support for environmental protection may be higher now than they were during the golden age of environmental lawmaking; certainly they are not lower. Public opinion seems generally supportive of the policy status quo, offering no strong support for new liberal initiatives or for conservatives seeking to amend laws such as the ESA and Superfund.

Indeed, in the 104th Congress (1995-1996), Republican leaders learned that citizens' general skepticism about government and the larger "right turn" in U.S. politics did not extend to support for rolling back the federal commitment to environmental protection. Citizens perceived the Republicans to be too extreme on environmental issues; claims that the green state was inefficient and too invasive had little effect, and the party was forced to moderate its rhetoric and its agenda. Likewise, to this point there has been no broad public outcry about the failure of successive presidents and sessions of Congress to act decisively to address global warming.

Thus, the environment seems to be a settled issue in public opinion. There is strong general support for the green state despite conservative complaints about costs and inefficiency and despite environmentalists' concerns that efforts at pollution control and conservation have been too weak. The barriers to dramatic policy change in the United States typically give way only when there is a perceived crisis. Today—despite increasing concern on global warming—there is no widespread sense of crisis on the part of the public, no overwhelming fears about continuing environmental degradation or deep concerns about the economic and social costs of environmental protection. Public opinion supports the status quo, feeding legislative gridlock.

Increased Interest Group Mobilization

Although public opinion on the environment has been stable for many years, the organizational politics surrounding these issues has changed dramatically. The environmental policy arena is thick with political organizations, and the intense mobilization of interests on all sides of key policy questions has limited opportunities for major legislative action. The explosion of environmental advocacy in the early 1960s and 19 70s created a large interest group sector. Indeed, the environmental movement was "the largest, most visible, and fastest growing part of the citizen's sector" in the latter part of the twentieth century.3 Christopher Bosso argued that "the breadth, density, and diversity of the environmental advocacy community give environmentalism itself greater resiliency and impact than are often recognized."4 Environmental groups have been minor players in campaign finance, but their large memberships and staff resources, coupled with strong general public support for environmental protection, have made them formidable players in legislative politics.

The legislative successes of environmentalists triggered two significant reactions. First, business interests, knocked off balance by the environmental enthusiasm of the 1970s, quickly caught themselves and dug in against the expansion of the green state. Business political mobilization increased sharply in the 1970s, with significant increases in lobbying and campaign spending as well as support for policy research and public advocacy highlighting the costs of the new social regulation. One breathtaking development in this field has been the growth of corporate political spending, both in terms of direct contributions to candidates and soft money. The corporate sector's outsized fund-raising capacities give it ample resources to compete with a large and powerful environmental movement. Second, business mobilization has been joined by a grassroots "green backlash" movement incorporating diverse concerns, including outdoor recreationists, ranchers, farmers, property rights activists, and wise users. These backlash groups have achieved few significant legislative gains, but their activism has crystallized national discussions about the human costs of environmental protection and environmentally sensitive resource management.

Interest group mobilization has contributed to legislative gridlock on environmental issues, frustrating environmentalists and those seeking to roll back the laws of the 1960s and 1970s. Green groups are powerful enough to resist changes to the basic environmental laws favored by business and anti-green backlash groups. Yet environmentalists have been unable to overcome business resistance to green legislative proposals. Corporate campaign contributions, lobbying, and the capacity to summon angry grassroots support have hemmed in the environmental movement in Congress. The level of interest group mobilization on the environment could not have been dreamed of in 1970, and it has certainly contributed to legislative frustration for allies and enemies of the green state.

A More Pervasive Media

Since the 19 70s, there have been several significant changes—often related to transformations in technology—in how the media cover government. First was the increase in satellite television linkages, leading to increased local television coverage. Local coverage influences how members behave, frequently leading to an increase in symbolic stands on issues and illuminating member behavior more clearly.

The rise of the Internet was a second important media change. The Internet made it easier for interest groups and individuals to track what members of Congress were doing on particular bills, to send e-mail action alerts to group members, and to deluge Congress with e-mail messages on issues (to a lesser degree, messages were sent by fax for a time). Activists and interested citizens seeking detailed information on what is happening in environmental policy can easily look beyond mainstream news sources and rely on releases from environmental organizations or economic interests that may offer up slanted versions of the issues at stake. There are also several environmental news services, such as the Daily Grist, Headwaters News, and Greenwire.

In addition, the increase in media outlets thanks to the Internet and the growth of cable TV led to more competition to break stories and to fill pages and time. These increased media outlets have also combined with the traditional mainstream media approach to reporting on contentious policy issues of presenting views from representatives of "both sides" of those issues. This practice has amplified the voices of the small minority in the scientific and policy communities who doubt that the global warming phenomenon is real or is linked to human activity. The result has created confusion for citizens where little should exist, making it more difficult to advocate for decisive action on this critical problem.

These changes in the media have combined with the well-known sensitivity of politicians to constituency interests, rising partisanship, and the explosion of interest groups. Thus, there is a reduction in the space available for members of Congress to engage substantive and wide-ranging legislation, especially legislation that alienates any significant population of groups.

The Changing Nature of Environmental Problems

In the early 1970s, pollution control policy focused primarily on curbing effluent and emissions from large, readily identifiable industrial sources.

Many of these sources are now reasonably well-controlled. Now we must look at more dispersed and widespread pollution sources.

What makes these problems even more difficult to address is that the politics of environmental policy change as the source of problems is defined as "us" (drivers of old cars, farmers, runoff from city streets, dry cleaners) instead of "them" (factory smokestacks). Developing national standards is difficult because of the complexities of the new problems; the prospects of high costs and palpable constraints on citizens' behavior change the politics of pollution issues. Legislators find it more difficult to support laws aimed at citizens and small businesses.

Taken together, these factors explain the difficulties Congress has had in dealing directly with environmental issues since 1990. This congressional gridlock, which has made it difficult for the political system to address new problems as well as concerns about existing laws and institutions, has been reinforced by the institutionalization of several layers of environmental policy commitments made over a hundred years of political development. These laws, institutions, and expectations dealing with conservation and environmental policy control strong points on the policy terrain and in many areas have held the status quo against drives for policy change. Yet the layering of the green state not only contributes to gridlock; it also energizes modern environmental politics and offers opportunities for policy to make its way up and down these layers and across the many alternative paths created by the green state and offered by the structure of the U.S. political system.

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