Lame Duck Bush Administration Hastens to Weaken Environmental Protection Laws
Fearing that Democrats may win the White House as well as strengthen their control of Congress, our lame duck president is rushing to eviscerate as many environmental protection laws as he can before the moving trucks arrive. There is an almost palpable sense of urgency.
Those of us who advocate for cleaner air, cleaner water, healthier wildlife habitat, more wilderness protection, and other environmental values are justifiably upset. But even though the methods Bush and his appointees are using are undemocratic and unethical, they are quite legal. In fact, they have been used by presidents before him, including Bill Clinton.
What’s the big rush? To understand the sense of urgency pervading the scene, you need to turn the clock back 16 years. Bill Clinton won the presidential election in November 1992. When he took office in January 1993, he taught the Republicans a lesson they will never forget. During its last days, the George H.W. Bush administration had made a whole bunch of rulings and issued many directives that Democrats didn’t like. But in making their end-run around Congress (which never got the chance to vet the decisions) the Bush ’41 administration apparently forgot the extremely important fact that 60 days must elapse before new federal regulations take effect. Upon taking office on January 20, Clinton simply reversed them, dumping them unceremoniously into the dustbin of history. (Clinton made sure that his own end-arounds went into effect more than 60 days before the next presidential inauguration. A prime example is his highly controversial proclamation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was dated September 18, 1996. The fact that Clinton was reelected did not diminish the worth of the tactic.)
Republicans were dismayed at Clinton’s destruction of their handiwork in January 1993, and they vowed that it would never be allowed to happen again. Fast forward to Fall 2008. Time is running out for the Bush administration to achieve its long-held goal of weakening environmental protection laws in order to create a climate more favorable to resource exploitation and wealth creation. Polls confirm that the public does not want weaker environmental protection laws, and that’s a problem. Democrats control Congress, and that’s a bigger problem. Barrack Obama seems poised to defeat John McCain in the presidential election on Tuesday, and though that is far from a done deal, it is the biggest problem of all.
Surprisingly, none of this really matters in the odd metric of the American legal system. If you are the president of the United States, even if you are as unloved as George W. Bush, you and your appointees can render decisions that alter or negate federal laws without violating the constitution. Whether gutting the Endangered Species Act, weakening the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, or whatever, the decisions and directives are legally binding unless revoked within 30 days. There is no public input and no Congressional vetting -- just a sneaky end-around that scarcely pays lip service to the democratic process. What an odd way, you might say, for a democracy to conduct its business.
Bush's systematic weakening of environmental protection laws has been across the board, but especially vigorous in the direction of the Endangered Species Act, a law that developers hate with an extra measure of passion. Earthjustice has summed it up rather nicely (August 11, 2008):
With only months to go before leaving office the Bush administration took the wraps off its latest plan to weaken environmental laws. Dale Hall, head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, announced the administration is proposing changes in current federal rules to allow any government agency the authority to approve projects that could harm rare and threatened wildlife or their habitat. The proposed rule change would replace 35 years of mandatory review by independent federal scientists. The proposed change in wildlife protection rules echoes a similar effort the Bush administration embarked on a few years ago which was stopped by order of a federal court. In that case, the administration gave EPA the authority to approve deadly poisons without first seeking the expert advice of the US Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service.
George Bush is certainly no dummy. He understands that time is the most precious sort of capital, and that he is fast running out of it. You can count on him and his appointees to trash as many environmental protection laws and regulations as they can as fast as they can, making sure that they beat the 30-day deadline preceding the next presidential inauguration. That's slated for January 20, 2009, so there are less than two months left. The pace will soon accelerate; you can count on it.
To his Republican base, and especially the powerful interests to whom he is beholden, George Bush is saying, “I have fought the good fight to get rid of those ridiculous constraints on economic development.” To the rest of us he is saying: “Put that in your hookah and smoke it, you tree-hugging, bunny-loving, eco-freaks!”
What all of this portends for our national parks remains to be seen, but the damage could be severe and long-lasting. Environmentally harmful rules-making is a process that impacts environmental quality in a broad scale way, affecting the parks directly, indirectly, and chronically. For more details about the nature of Bush administration threats to the parks, see the Grijalva report entitled "The Bush Administration Assaults on Our National Parks, Forests and Public Lands (A Partial List)."
Traveler trivia, no extra charge: If John McCain wins this election, it will reset the clock. The last time the Republicans won a presidential election without a Nixon or Bush on the ticket was in 1928.