Major Environmental Laws Come in Election Years – Climate is No Exception in 2010

When the Congress returns from Easter Recess next week, 116 days will remain on the legislative calendar before Election Day on November 9.  This relative dearth of time has led some proponents of climate action to worry whether there is enough political appetite for Congress to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation while midterm elections loom.  Certainly, the November elections are on the minds of legislators.  However, elections have always factored into Congressional decision-making and action.  Government accountability through elections is what our Republic is founded on, after all.  Despite impending campaigns, nearly every major environmental law of the last 40 years has been passed during an election year.

In general, Congress has a history of making big policy decisions during election years.  USA Today recently found that over the last 20 years, Congresses have actually passed 70% more laws in election years than in other years.  What’s more is that these laws are not just limited to post office dedications and other less-than-essential topics.  Comprehensive legislation has often passed in election years, including the 1994 crime bill, 1996 welfare reform, 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, and even the health care reform bill this year.

Turning specifically to environmental laws, 22 major laws (listed below), beginning with the National Environmental Policy Act signed in 1970, were enacted in election years.  For example, October 1986 – just weeks from Election Day – saw the passage of significant amendments to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund).

A clear precedent for climate change legislation passing in 2010 is the Clean Air Act amendments that passed in late 1990.  Just as President Obama campaigned on passing climate legislation, President George H.W. Bush campaigned to enact new air pollution laws.  Bush worked with a group of bipartisan legislators to have a revolutionary package of amendments introduced in the House by Rep. Dingell (D-MI) and in the Senate by Sen. Chafee (R-RI).  This package included a cap-and-trade program for power plant emissions of acid rain-causing NOx and SO2.  After the bipartisan bills easily passed both chambers by mid-year, the conference committee, led by Sen. Baucus (D-MT), agreed to a compromise bill that passed 401-25 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate.  Passage occurred by these wide, bipartisan margins on October 26 and 27 – not bad for two weeks before an election.

Comprehensive climate and energy legislation should be the next in the series of major environmental laws passed in a midterm election year.  Like the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, other environmental laws have required bipartisan compromise.  Democrats and Republicans have had to reach agreement on environmental policy before and they can do so again, even in an election year.  Making good public policy is the best politics, and a strong bipartisan effort on the serious challenge of climate change is something that both parties should be accountable for in November.

Environmental laws passed in election years since 1970 include:

  • National Environmental Policy Act (1970)
  • Clean Air Act Amendments (1970)
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970)
  • Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972)
  • Coastal Zone Management Act (1972)
  • Clean Water Act (1972)
  • Safe Drinking Water Act (1974)
  • Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (1976)
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)
  • Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976)
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (1980)
  • Nuclear Waste Policy Act (1982)
  • Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986)
  • Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986)
  • Ocean Dumping Act (1988)
  • Shore Protection Act (1988)
  • Oil Pollution Act (1990)
  • Clean Air Act Amendments (1990)
  • Pollution Prevention Act (1990)
  • Food Quality Protection Act (1996)  
  • Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments (1996)

Environmental laws passed in non-election years include:

  • Endangered Species Act (1973)
  • Clean Air Act Amendments (1977)

Michael Tubman is the Congressional Affairs Fellow