Bill Ruckelshaus on EPA: 'Battered Agency Syndrome?'

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- With an angry crop of conservative Republicans about to grab the reins of power in the House of Representatives, the Environmental Protection Agency is once again in danger of  "battered agency syndrome," said Bill Ruckelshaus, the moderate Republican who headed the 40-year-old agency during the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

As the respected granddaddy and founding administrator of EPA, Ruckelshaus, now 78-years-old, is worried about his offspring at a time when some members of his own party ran for Congress on a platform of abolishing the controversial regulatory agency. Incoming House committee chairs plan endless oversight hearings to rake EPA over the coals on the hot button issue of climate change. With congressional gridlock over greenhouse gas legislation, the Obama administration is under scrutiny as to how far it will go in regulating the problem using EPA's existing powers under the Clean Air Act.

EPA seems to be a lightning rod for the anti-government fervor that strikes Washington on a regular basis, Ruckelshaus said in an interview Friday at a Harvard University conference on the agency's 40th birthday. For veterans of environmental battles of yore, to some degree "it's déjà vu all over again" (thanks Yogi!). "It's cyclical. The more active EPA is, the more controversy," said Ruckelshaus, who was appointed by President Nixon as the first administrator when the agency opened for business on December 3, 1970.

Later, after a Newt Gingrich-led backlash against the Clinton administration ushered in a Republican-controlled House with anti-regulatory sentiments in the 1994 mid-term elections, Ruckelshaus expressed concern that "violent swings" in power were having a "devastating effect on EPA."

His warnings, in a 1995 essay published on the agency's 25th birthday, are highly reminiscent of where we are today:

"We should be able to recognize certain repeating patterns. And so we do. We recognize, as perhaps the newer members of Congress do not, that the current rhetorical excess is yet another phase in a dismaying pattern. The anti-environmental push of the nineties is prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the late eighties, which was prompted by the anti-environmental excess of the early eighties, which was prompted by the pro-environmental excess of the seventies, which was prompted.... But why go on. The pattern is quite clear. The new Congress may believe that it is the vanguard of a permanent change in attitude toward regulation, but unless the past is no longer prologue, the pendulum will swing back, and we will see a new era of pro-environmental movement in the future."

As he said then, the constant pendulum swings take their toll: "The impact of all this on the agency is devastating. EPA suffers from battered agency syndrome.... Why is EPA now the agency everyone loves to hate?"

In his talk Friday, Ruckelshaus recalled the environmental fervor of 1970, when "we had the smell, touch, and feel type of pollution" with visibly dirty air and water that compelled both the Nixon administration and Congress to act. He noted that Nixon talked about "making peace with nature" in his 1970 State of the Union address, adding, "Can you imagine a conservative Republican saying that today?"

Sixteen major pieces of environmental legislation to clean up the air, water, solid waste, protect endangered species, and so forth, were enacted during the Nixon administration, said Ruckelshaus, all with strong bipartisan support. EPA was created to carry them out. "Citizens were demanding something be done, and the government was responding," he said.

But Nixon himself was hardly an environmentalist. In fact, Ruckelshaus said, Nixon became increasingly disillusioned with his own environmental initiatives as the 1972 election neared and felt Congress was going too far. At a celebration of Earth Day's 40th anniversary last spring at the Nixon library, Ruckelshaus saw some of the presidential papers from that era, including a Clean Water Act document on which Nixon had handwritten "bullshit" in a marginal note. Nonetheless, Nixon "had the most extraordinary record any President has ever had," he said.

Presented by

Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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