The Paradox of Politics

Just as “it takes two to tango,” it has taken two political parties working in tandem over the last few decades in the United States to produce the vast majority of major federal environmental laws. Over the last four decades, almost 70 percent of major federal environmental protection legislation has been brought about by the combination of a Republican president and an all-Democratic Congress.

As a result of the 2006 U.S. midterm election, the Democratic Party gained a majority of state governorships and U.S. House and Senate seats. Democratic control of Congress may provide a strong counterbalance to the president and trigger a process that could result in more debates on environmental issues. How will the results of the 2006 election and change of political leadership affect U.S. environmental policy in the next few years? This article follows the history and trends of federal environmental law development, which may bring some insight to the future direction of U.S. environmental legislation. In additional to political leadership in the government, cultural and social drivers also play an important role in the development of environmental laws. As an example, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was supported by all members of Congress, was signed into law after the Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in Prince William Sound in Alaska. While each law may have its own driving force and history, this article concentrates on the historical relationship of environmental laws and party division.

Sixty-seven “significant” federal environmental laws were identified to examine the long-range trends in regulatory development in relation to political party divisions in the government. (Significant environmental laws are defined as those implemented by industry groups and considered important at the national level.) However, this article focuses on the 26 “major” environmental laws enacted since 1965 (see Table 1). These 26 laws, defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDA), are fundamental laws that form the legal framework for U.S. environmental legislation. Most of the major environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, were passed from 1970 to 1990.

Table One: List of Major Environmental Laws
Environmental Laws
Year Enacted
Presidential Party
Senate Majority
House Majority
Freedom of Information Act
1966 Johnson D D D
Clean Air Act Amendments 1970 Nixon R D D
National Environmental Policy Act 1970 Nixon R D D
Occupational Safety and Health Act 1970 Nixon R D D
Clean Water Act 1972 Ford R D D
Coastal Zone Management Act 1972 Nixon R D D

Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and
Rodenticide Act Amendment

1972 Nixon R D D
Marine Mammal Protection Act 1972 Nixon R D D
Endangered Species Act 1973 Nixon R D D
Safe Drinking Water Act 1974 Ford R D D
Federal Land Policy and Management Act 1976 Ford R D D
Fisheries Conservation and Management
Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act)
1976 Ford R D D
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
1976 Ford R D D
Toxic Substances Control Act 1976 Ford R D D
Clean Water Act Amendments 1977 Carter D D D
Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act 1977 Carter D D D
Comprehensive Environmental Response,
Compensation and Liability Act
(CERCLA or Superfund)
1980 Carter D D D
Emergency Planning and Community
Right-To- Know Act (EPCRA)
1986 Reagan R R D
Superfund Amendments and
Reauthorization Act (SARA)
1986 Reagan R R D
Clean Water Act Amendments 1987 Reagan R D D
Clean Air Act Amendments 1990 Bush R D D
Clean Water Act Amendments 1990 Bush R D D
Oil Pollution Control Act 1990 Bush R D D
Pollution Prevention Act 1990 Bush R D D

Food Quality Protection Act
1996 Clinton D R R
Chemical Safety Information, Site
Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act
1999 Clinton D R R
R = Republican
D = Democratic

During the last 40 years, the enactment of most major environmental laws required the majority in Congress and a president from the opposite political party to work together. Almost 70 percent(18 out of 26) of these environmental laws were passed by Republican presidents who served during Democratic control of Congress (a combination which existed during only a third of the 40-year time frame). Figure 1 provides a graphic illustration of the number of major environmental laws enacted in relation to political party divisions in the government at the time of passage.

Figure 1: Major Environmental Laws and Political Party Divisions

As shown in Figure 2, the United States experienced a sharp increase in the passage of major environmental laws during the periods 1965-1980 and 1985-1990. Since 2000, there has been no significant change in environmental legislation as the number of major environmental laws or amendments remained static.

Figure 2: The Development of Major Environmental Laws Since 1965

Figure 3 incorporates all 67 significant environmental laws and provides results consistent with those in Figure 2. It shows that there was significant growth of environmental laws between 1965-1980 and 1985-1990. Federal environmental law development has been slow in recent years. Only three significant laws/amendments have been passed since 2000 – the Pesticide Regulation Improvement Act, Energy Policy Act, and the recent Fisheries and Conservation Act. An interesting observation of Figure 3 is that some federal environmental legislation has always been enacted over the last 40 years regardless of the political party in power.

Figure 3: The Development of Significant Environmental Laws Since 1965

During those periods when there was a Republican president and Democratic Congress, an average of one to two major environmental laws passed each year. If these trends apply to the current federal government combination, there should be two to four major environmental laws passed before the next congressional and presidential elections in late 2008.

History has shown that the Democratic Party has been the initiator of many environmental laws. However, it is also important to point out that Republican presidents signed most of the major environmental laws. After the 2006 election, there is hope that the new Democratic Congress and Republican President will bring positive changes to current environmental policy.

1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site on Introduction to Laws and Regulations,
2. EPA, Major Environmental Laws,
3. Natural Resources Defense Council, U.S. Environmental Laws,
4. Office of the Clerk, Party Divisions of the House of Representatives (1789-Present),
5. Party Division in the Senate ,1789-present,
6. Wikipedia, List of Presidents of the United States,

Cindy Chen is an environmental engineer at BMT Designers & Planners, a marine engineering and environmental consulting firm based in Arlington, Va. Chen has a bachelor of science degree in environmental engineering from the Clarkson University, and a master of science degree in environmental engineering from the Johns Hopkins University. Chen is a senior environmental analyst with 10 years of experience in U.S. and international environmental policy. She can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or company Web site at

Mike Hicks is vice president, environmental programs at BMT Designers & Planners. Hicks has a bachelor of science degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech, and a master of science degree in business from Virginia Commonwealth University. Hicks has over 20 years of experience in U.S. and international environmental policy. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or company Web site at

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