NOTHING IS MORE FUNDAMENTAL THAN THE AIR WE breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink—but until 1970, nothing limited the amount of pollution that could be released into the air. The Clean Air Act of 1970 stands as landmark legislation because it established the first system to regulate pollution from industrial plants and cars. In 1977, Paul Rogers, my old subcommittee chairman, took a lead in strengthening the law by cutting down on vehicle tailpipe emissions. As a native of Los Angeles, I was pleased to have played a small part, and recalled the days when Uncle Al had faced off with local industry. By the time I entered Congress, both parties recognized the importance of clean air.
Ronald Reagan did not. During his presidential campaign, Reagan betrayed his lack of regard for the environment by claiming that trees cause pollution. Soon after sweeping into office on an anti-government wave, he led a serious assault on the Clean Air Act. Reagan wanted to attack the philosophical core of the law—the idea that its central purpose was to protect people’s health—and replace it with a cost-based standard more amenable to business. He wanted to double the amount of pollution cars could emit; double the pollution permitted in national parks; and relax controls on nearly every source of industrial emissions. Most frightening to anyone who cared about the environment was the near certainty that he could do it. American industry eagerly lined up behind him. Republicans had gained expanded numbers in Congress after routing Democrats in the election. And a powerful Democrat, John Dingell of Michigan, champion of the auto industry and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, had agreed to sponsor Reagan’s bill. Advocates of clean air knew no darker time than the early days of 1981.
Yet the rollback never materialized. Reagan’s assault was turned against him, and energized a decade-long battle that culminated in the toughest environmental law in American history. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 reversed the causes of acid rain, ozone depletion, and smog, while imposing further significant restrictions on pollution from cars and trucks. By the mid-1990s it was clear that this was not just America’s toughest environmental legislation, but also its most effective: Dramatic reductions in pollution came at a fraction of the cost that industry and experts had predicted.
The story of the Clean Air Act is one of the best illustrations of how Congress really works—how the oversight and legislative processes can combine to solve immense societal problems; how industry and its allies in Congress attack the regulatory system, and how they can be stopped; and how major acts of legislation, though they may take years to push through, provide benefits that last for generations. From my own perspective, the fight to renew the Clean Air Act is also an adventure tale, complete with several near-death experiences, years of careful plotting and brinkmanship, and the eventual triumph of David over Goliath. Above all, the story serves as a reminder that no matter how gloomy the outlook or fearsome the opposition of the White House, powerful members of Congress, or the private sector, landmark legislation can be attained through organization, skill, and hard work.
THE GREATEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT MAKING LAWS IS THE ASsumption that most problems have clear solutions, and reaching compromise mainly entails splitting the difference between partisan extremes. This is rarely the case, and legislation crafted this way usually fails. “Meeting in the middle” doesn’t work for the simple reason that it invariably neglects to solve whatever problem raised the issue in the first place. Take the problem of smog. If 200 million tons of pollution must be eliminated to clean the air, and industry wants to emit 100 million more, any splitting of the difference would effectively make things worse: The offending industry would wind up being saddled with additional costs, and the air wouldn’t be noticeably cleaner. Nobody wins. Successful legislation, on the other hand, would find a way to solve the problem and clean the air without putting anyone out of business or costing anyone a job. This was the challenge that lay ahead of us in 1981. But first we had to stop Reagan.
What made the new president’s coalition so imposing was its broad support in Congress. Important leaders in both parties had committed to undoing the 1970 law. From outside, legislative clashes are usually assumed to take place between the two parties; but the reality is that regional loyalties, not partisan ones, often draw the congressional battle lines. Such was the case with clean air. John Dingell, a Democrat, sided with Ronald Reagan, a Republican, because he represented the auto industry, and in 1981 the major automakers were reeling from a severe recession. Chrysler had teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, while Ford and GM were laying off thousands of workers. To Dingell and other Rust Belt Democrats, the conservative push to weaken environmental regulations presented an opportunity for them to ease the economic burden on some important constituents.
As chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, environmental legislation came under Dingell’s purview. So in addition to the automotive industry, he was the point man for the oil, coal, steel, power, and chemical industries as well. Initially, this was a source of strength. Industry presented a unified front because Reagan had promised something for each interest. But privately, each worried that its interest would be sacrificed if the bill ran into trouble. It became one of our primary tactics to exploit this fear.
Regional differences helped our side, too, though we lacked anything like the nationwide momentum of the Reagan Revolution. Jerry Lewis, a Republican from Southern California also under the shadow of Los Angeles smog, agreed to co-sponsor a competing bill with me. And one of few reassuring moments early on came in conversation with Robert Stafford, a Vermont Republican whom the new Republican majority had made chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. Stafford pledged to do whatever he could to block the Dingell bill that both of us feared would emerge from the House.
WHEN CONFRONTED BY A STEAMROLLER, AS WE WERE ABOUT TO be, you first need to slow its momentum. There are two ways to go about this. One way is to stall, by whipping up a blizzard of amendments that demand the committee’s attention, while pursuing every parliamentary maneuver in the rule book to delay the proceedings. The other way is to win a skirmish, to prevail on an amendment and force the other side to have to fall back and regroup, in the process sowing doubt and discord in its ranks.
Dingell envisioned a straightforward power play: He would ram a bill through the House, and then the Senate, backed by a coalition of Republicans and pressure from industry groups. The strategy suited him. An avid hunter, whose office is adorned with animal heads, Dingell is a large man, tall and physically imposing, who can intimidate his colleagues, much like Lyndon Johnson in the famous series of photographs by George Tames. Dingell took such delight in playing the heavy that he even coined a term for his technique. He called it “diddling.” To diddle someone was to aggressively work them over in a very public way and keep going after them until they submitted. Once, while we worked on a bill together, I suggested getting on with business. “No, no,” he replied. “I want to diddle that guy a little longer.”
Dingell and I introduced competing measures to rewrite the Clean Air Act, though little doubt existed as to whose bill commanded more support. But both were referred to the Health and the Environment Subcommittee—so even though Dingell chaired the full committee, the chairman’s powers initially lay with me.
As soon as the new administration settled in, I used those powers to hold oversight hearings intended to educate fellow members, Senate colleagues, and the public about the dire nature of what Reagan planned to do. Bill Dannemeyer, the subcommittee’s ranking member, was an adversary from the outset. He didn’t deny that pollution was a problem, Dannemeyer once told the committee, but he had started getting up earlier in the morning for his daily jog and that had made things much better.
One benefit of the close relationships my staff developed with the agencies was the willingness of some career employees to leak us information when they decided that the administration’s plans were too reckless or damaging. Early on, someone at the Environmental Protection Agency leaked us Reagan’s draft recommendations for amending the Clean Air Act, and the severe cuts he intended promptly became the basis for a hearing that aroused a public outcry.
Though Washington insiders may have thought that weakening the Clean Air Act was a fait accompli, the rest of the country was unpersuaded. A June 1981 Harris poll showed that 86 percent of Americans opposed the idea. When I invited Lou Harris, the pollster, to appear before the subcommittee, he announced that “clean air happens to be one of the sacred cows of the American people.” Harris was hardly an authority on regulatory policy. But as an expert on public opinion he made a powerful witness nonetheless because he spoke directly to the fears of my congressional colleagues, an audience I very much wanted to influence. In mid-December, the bill had not budged, and industry was growing nervous. To a reporter’s question about what was holding it up, GM’s chief Washington lobbyist replied: “The Lou Harris poll.”
By February, however, we could hold things back no longer and the steamroller moved on. Dingell’s bill prevailed over mine, and the battle shifted to a series of counter-amendments, each designed to highlight a shortcoming, that my subcommittee colleagues and I introduced over the coming weeks. Dingell defeated every one of them—nearly sixty in all—usually by a 12–8 majority that consisted of three other Midwestern Democrats and the committee’s Republicans.
Meanwhile, I employed a number of parliamentary tactics to throw sand in the gears, such as insisting that the committee clerk read the entire text of the bill aloud. In this way, we managed to slow matters to a crawl. With the 1982 midterm elections inching closer, Dingell came under growing pressure from nervous lawmakers. That pressure, and my delaying tactics, created considerable tension between the two of us. Then, in late March, a group of protesters leapt up in the middle of a subcommittee hearing and tore open their shirts to reveal “Dirty Dingell” T-shirts underneath. I was stunned, and quite unsure about the protocol for how a chairman should respond. As gently as possible, I suggested to the activists that their outburst was making it difficult to amend the bill, and politely but firmly asked them to stop. A few seats away, Dingell, fuming because I had not immediately evicted them, seemed to suspect that we were somehow in cahoots.
But the next day our amendment strategy had run its course, and Dingell’s bill passed through subcommittee by a 13–7 vote. All that we had done had not stopped him.
WITH ACTION NOW SHIFTING TO THE FULL ENERGY AND COMmerce Committee, which was under his chairmanship, our chances of stopping Dingell’s bill appeared all but dead. We embarked on the same delaying tactics as before, in hopes that we could generate media and public attention. The House had something called a “Five-Minute Rule,” which stipulated that committees could not meet for debate without first gaining unanimous consent on the floor. Each morning, the House clerk routinely waived the rule—until I started showing up to insist that he enforce it. Then I’d return to the committee and introduce a point of order that we didn’t have permission to meet, thereby bringing everything to a halt. (The House eventually abolished this rule in large part, it’s said, because of me.)
We also introduced in the full committee many of the amendments that had failed in subcommittee, still hoping to find an issue where we could prevail over Dingell and demonstrate that his strength was not as great as imagined. We needed a magic bullet. The only advantage in being an enormous underdog up against a broad and powerful coalition is that if you can find a way to weaken it at a critical moment sometimes the whole thing will fall apart. Three amendments struck us as promising, and these became critical test-case votes, recognized by everyone on the committee as important measures of strength.
On April 20, Colorado Democrat Tim Wirth introduced the first of these challenges, a measure moving up the date by which states would have to comply with clean air rules. We had chosen the Wirth amendment because it offered two attractive features. Regulatory jargon can be difficult to follow: MACT standards, PSDs, nonattainment provisions, and so on. But anyone can grasp the idea that no state would ever meet its obligation without a firm deadline. And because it did not affect a specific industry, the Wirth measure also served as an easy symbolic vote for members wishing to demonstrate their independence, which we hoped would be just enough to eke out a win.
The prospect of another Waxman-backed amendment did not exactly strike fear into our adversaries. Given that we had posted an uninterrupted losing streak now dozens of amendments long, nobody expected us to pass this one. But we stunned the Dingell coalition by prevailing, 22-19. Ralph Hall, the conservative Texas Democrat (who became a Republican), cast the deciding vote. He had never sided with us before, but he was persuaded to do so on this single amendment.
Shortly thereafter, Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, followed with an amendment to undo a provision in the Dingell bill doubling the pollution permitted in national parks. This stood to be a much tougher vote because most of the pollution came from cars, and that put us on a collision course with the chairman himself. But Wyden was addressing an outrageous affront—one that was similarly easy for the public to grasp—and on April 28 it passed 25-13. Seeing his coalition coming apart, Dingell had no choice but to suspend the markup and regroup.
Throughout the summer, both sides prepared for the upcoming clash over the third test-case amendment, a provision limiting toxic air pollutants. The Wirth and Wyden amendments had shown that Dingell lacked the strength to force through anything he wanted. This one sought to go a step further and splinter his coalition. Imposing as the industries aligned against us were, they had come together on no firmer a basis than individual greed. The Reagan administration had promised each of them specific regulatory rollbacks. Our strategy was to muster all our strength to deny one industry its favors, and in doing so, set off a chain reaction—if one industry pulled out, others might waver, too, eventually turning the coalition members against one another. The idea was to prey upon industry paranoia that anyone left out of the bill would not only lose a cherished rollback, but probably face tougher restrictions than before to offset those that would be weakened elsewhere. Though the gathered interests operated in lockstep at the outset, all but the auto industry worried that Dingell might abandon them in a pinch.
We chose the toxic air amendment because the chemical industry had a great deal riding on the outcome. Two members whose constituents lived close to chemical plants, Jim Florio, a liberal Democrat from New Jersey, and Billy Tauzin, a conservative Democrat from Louisiana, agreed to sponsor the amendment. At issue was the question of how the law should classify thirty-seven substances that the EPA had identified as “potential carcinogens.” The Florio-Tauzin amendment gave the agency four years to determine whether the substances were hazardous, and automatically listed them as such if no decision was made. Dingell’s bill set a similar deadline, but with the key difference that it allowed the EPA to delay any final decision indefinitely, which had the practical effect of guaranteeing that it would.
As committee chairman, Dingell held the advantage of controlling the calendar and didn’t have to call up the measure until he was certain that he had the votes to prevail. The call came in early August. Heading into markup, industry groups were brashly confident of a win. But I wasn’t so sure. Over the summer, we had worked hard to organize a coalition, approaching members who, like Ralph Hall, did not ordinarily vote with us but might be persuaded to here. By my count, Florio-Tauzin hinged on a single vote—that belonging to Marc Marks, a Pennsylvania Republican.
Marks was an occasional vote for me on environmental issues, but as someone with industry in his district never a lock. He was a Jewish Republican, so we had religion in common, and I had come to know him as an honest and sincere fellow. But Marks was in a tough spot. Republicans pushed him around whenever he took moderate positions (he later switched parties), so I didn’t expect to get him. But I knew that if we could peel him off, we stood a good chance to carry the day. Over the summer, Marks told me that he would do it.
But when Dingell recalled the committee after months of inactivity, we discovered that we could not get ahold of Marks—always an ominous sign. Everyone assumed the worst, and on the night before the vote, it looked to me like the end. The next morning, as we were about to begin, I approached him in the committee room. “Are you going to be with me?” I asked apprehensively. “Yes, I will,” he replied. Behind me and just out of earshot, my chief of staff, Phil Schiliro, stood anxiously awaiting word. I leaned over and told him, “Don’t smile, but he’s with us.” For a moment, I started choking up at the realization that all our effort on behalf of what had often seemed a hopeless cause was about to produce a win. On August 11, 1982, the Dingell amendment failed by Marks’s single vote, and soon afterward Florio-Tauzin prevailed. An ashen-faced Dingell brought down his gavel and declared, “Meeting recessed.”
With that unexpected loss, Reagan’s historic endeavor to shred the Clean Air Act came to a sudden and ignominious end. Dingell lost the opportunity to revive his bill when his outside coalition collapsed. Its prize suddenly vanished, the chemical industry withdrew its support, and others soon followed, having lost confidence that they could prevail. American industry and the Reagan administration never mounted another such full-scale assault. But the act itself still needed updating. Having fought back efforts to weaken it, we now turned to the task of making it stronger.
IN BLOCKING REAGAN, WE PRESERVED THE LAW REQUIRING POLluted areas to improve their air and clean areas to stay that way. But other problems lingered. Acid rain caused by Midwestern utilities burning high-sulfur Appalachian coal was killing lakes and forests in the Northeast and Canada. For several years running, the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee had passed acid rain controls, but none ever made it to the Senate floor: Robert Byrd, the Democratic majority leader who represented the coal state of West Virginia, made sure of this. By 1983, however, Byrd had been relegated to the minority, and Republican margins in both houses had suffered in the midterm elections for Reagan’s overreaching. Several of us in the House decided to take up acid rain.
Science showed clearly that acidic emissions from outdated power plants were the source of this menace. Fixing it would be an expensive proposition that required outfitting smokestacks with scrubbers—a cost that utilities were loath to bear, while Midwesterners feared it would drive their electric bills through the roof. Coal miners in the Midwest and Appalachia feared that switching to cleaner, low-sulfur coal, which was mined elsewhere, would cost them their jobs.
This regional dilemma caused the problem to persist: To one degree or another, everyone cared about acid rain. But only the Midwestern lawmakers who represented the offending utilities cared enough to fight to the death. To solve this regional problem, we set out to find a national solution that would spread the cost across the entire country. Doing so, we believed, would redistribute the main impediment to Midwestern cooperation—the cost of modernization—but in an easy enough way for the rest of us to bear that no one would object too strenuously. We settled on the idea of including a small add-on to electricity bills.
But before we could act, the administration threatened to upend the process. Citing an obscure provision in the 1977 Clean Air Act, Reagan’s EPA administrator, Anne Burford, announced plans to impose harsh economic sanctions on 218 communities across the country that had failed to meet a 1982 deadline for clean air. Burford’s legal interpretation was dubious, but her intention couldn’t have been clearer. Were the sanctions enforced, cities and states would immediately deluge Congress with furious demands that the law be rewritten, quickly and loosely: industry’s dream come true. (In a grim irony that no doubt doubled as an advantage to our opponents, the sanctions included forfeiture of federal grants for clean air programs.)
Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows. Having just fought to maintain one set of deadlines, it suddenly became imperative to extend another—and my yeoman ally turned out to be none other than Bill Dannemeyer. The key to political victory is always being open to unlikely alliances. Even someone with whom you’re at odds 98 percent of the time—certainly the case here!—may still become a useful partner. Dannemeyer normally sided with industry, but his smog-choked Orange County district stood to get hammered with sanctions, which put us fleetingly on the same side.
Together we offered an amendment postponing the deadline to the fiscal appropriations bill moving through the House, and encountered the expected opposition. “The law is the law,” argued Dingell, having long urged the EPA to enforce the sanctions. Amending the law required a vote of the full House. On June 2, 1983, the Dannemeyer-Waxman amendment passed 227-136. Reagan’s gambit proved too blunt an instrument, and succumbed to regional politics: So many districts stood to lose that he could not assemble even the possibility of a majority.
Though we dodged that bullet, knotty regional issues were still tying up efforts to address acid rain. Later that month, I joined with Gerry Sikorski, a Minnesota Democrat, to introduce a bill requiring the dirtiest power plants in the country to install pollution control technology, of which the federal government would cover 90 percent of the cost through the electricity bill fee. Here was a proposal that went beyond merely “splitting the difference” and actually solved the acid rain problem equitably for all sides: It managed at once to preserve the environment, affordable utility rates, and high-sulfur coal jobs.
To build support, I convened a series of field hearings in the Midwest intended to showcase this winning proposition that delivered an environmental benefit without imposing the regional economic consequences Midwesterners had come to fear. Even though they stood to gain $3 billion in federal help, the utilities wanted no part of this, and relied on the White House to provide cover. In the face of overwhelming scientific consensus on the cause of acid rain, Reagan officials insisted that the jury was still out.
By the following spring, we believed that we had put together a narrow majority that, from the outside, wouldn’t have appeared to make much sense. Every non-Midwestern Democrat on the subcommittee supported a bill that would tax their constituents to pay for pollution control in another part of the country. Opposing the idea were all six Republicans and three Midwestern Democrats. The remaining member, Dennis Eckart, an Ohio Democrat, stood to tip the balance, and his was ordinarily a solid vote for the environment. But unemployment from industrial closings had ravaged his district, which was also home to two of the fifty utility plants the bill targeted for clean-up. We had negotiated for weeks to earn his support, and, believing that we had it, I called for a vote—only to be stunned as Eckart sided with the opposition, striking down, by a single vote, the entire acid rain measure.
The next year we tried again, this time with provisions that would make it cheaper and easier for utilities to cut sulfur dioxide emissions. This time, the bill made it through subcommittee, but no further, after industry groups spent more money lobbying against it that any other measure that year. In the mid-1980s, clean air was an issue in transition. Industry’s attempt to weaken regulations had failed; but it had not yet been compelled to accept stronger ones.
IN CONTRAST TO WHAT MANY PEOPLE IMAGINE, LEGISLATIVE DEbates rarely occur within fixed parameters, or at least not for very long—the center is constantly moving. In the years it can take to pass a major piece of legislation like the Clean Air Act, the terms of debate often shift significantly. Sometimes the balance shifts gradually and by design, such as from a sustained lobbying effort. At other times, the shift happens suddenly and without warning, the consequence of a new president, a shake-up in Congress, or a major news event that recasts public opinion.
In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked forty tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas, instantly killing more than three thousand people and maiming 100,000 more in one of the worst industrial disasters history has ever seen. The Bhopal tragedy riveted the world, and, practically overnight, turned public attention in the United States to the dangers of toxic air pollutants.
Our inadequate clean air laws provided plenty of cause for concern. Incredibly, the EPA did not consider methyl isocyanate a hazardous substance, nor other plainly dangerous chemicals like phosgene, although it had been used as a poison gas in World War I. At the time of the disaster, the agency recognized just five substances as toxic pollutants—a shortcoming the Florio-Tauzin amendment had sought to address two years earlier. But that effort had died with the 1982 bill.
EPA’s haplessness in this area stemmed from the sort of bureaucratic breakdown of common sense that brings justified contempt upon the way government sometimes works. The agency’s policy was not to list a substance as a toxic air pollutant until it was prepared to regulate it—but it also refused to regulate any substance not already recognized as a toxic air pollutant. Obviously, this circular logic prevented anything from ever being done. In the fourteen years since the Clean Air Act had come into being, the EPA had categorized only a handful of 650 chemicals as dangerous air pollutants.
A catastrophe like Bhopal creates unique conditions in which long dormant issues can suddenly find new life and rocket to the top of the congressional agenda—but it’s important to move quickly. To capitalize on public concern, we held a field hearing the very next week in an auditorium located along the fence line of a Union Carbide plant in Institute, West Virginia, that produced methyl isocyanate. Greg Wetstone, an environmental counsel on my subcommittee staff, traveled ahead to interview local officials and other residents and gather information on the plant’s safety procedures.
Greg’s discoveries were troubling, even heartbreaking. Located in the narrow Kanawha Valley, the plant was identical to the one in Bhopal and emitted hazardous chemicals that appeared to pose the risk of a Bhopal-like incident. The plant manufactured another toxin called mercaptan, the gas additive responsible for the smell in your stove, which created overpowering odors that burned the eyes and lungs of those who lived nearby on the valley floor, forcing them indoors on windless days. These were the area’s poorest residents, since the better-off could afford to live high in the hills, where the air was cleaner.
Public safety was an afterthought. Local cancer rates were 25 percent higher than the national average. One schoolteacher had taken to sleeping on an incline to prevent fluid from building in his lungs. At the hearing, a union representative testified that the evacuation plan was to “put a wet cloth over your face and go crosswind,” only to be corrected by a school official who pointed out that a crosswind path in the valley would lead one into the Kanawha River on one side or up a mountain on the other. Residents were left to find solace in what they said was the company’s assurance that “if you can smell it, it can’t hurt you.” As the community’s largest employer, Union Carbide held tremendous sway, which discouraged many people from testifying. The reality that the company could ruin the local economy by relocating the plant was clear to municipal officials and workers alike.
Coming on the heels of Bhopal, the hearing drew enormous attention and became the lead story on every network news show. The few days we’d had to prepare for the hearing hadn’t allowed for as thorough an investigation as would normally occur. But even the abbreviated effort produced startling revelations. Union Carbide had reported to state regulators that the Institute plant emitted twelve pounds of chemicals into the air each day. A scientist from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration testified that, in fact, the plant emitted 11,000 tons of toxic materials every year, including about sixty chemicals, many known carcinogens among them. As if to underscore the danger, an alarm from the plant sounded during the hearing, briefly throwing the proceedings into chaos, since no one knew if chemicals had leaked and if we had to run for our lives. (We later learned from a company memo that plant managers had feared that an accident could cause widespread casualties.)
OUR PURPOSE THAT DAY WAS NOT ONLY TO EXAMINE CHEMICAL plant safety, but to try and answer a fundamental question: Just how toxic was the air that Americans breathe? Before you can begin thinking about a legislative solution, you must first understand the scope of the problem.
We knew from EPA’s failures that government did little to control the release of airborne pollutants. But we soon discovered an even more basic shortcoming that made quantifying the problem impossible: No one collected data about how many chemicals were released into the air each year—not federal, state, or local governments or even the chemical companies themselves. The EPA lacked such rudimentary information as an up-to-date list of the nation’s chemical plants and where they were located.
Just as we had done with pharmaceutical companies when trying to understand the orphan drug issue, we initiated a broad voluntary survey of the country’s largest chemical manufacturers to find out which toxic substances they put into the air. Only fifty of the eighty-six companies we approached supplied detailed data. But even these incomplete responses indicated that 80 million tons of toxic pollutants entered the air every year—far more than anyone had imagined.
In the wake of Bhopal, spewing carcinogens into the air was bad enough; but refusing to share basic safety information with government and worried neighbors was not just arrogant, but outright offensive. Citizens have a right to know when dangers lurk, even if their elected officials choose not to protect them. To ensure public awareness, I joined Gerry Sikorski, Tim Wirth and Jim Florio in proposing a national inventory of toxins that were known, or suspected to cause, cancer, birth defects, and other chronic health problems. In addition to giving people the right to know what chemicals their local plants were producing, the bill granted anyone injured by poisonous releases the right to sue in federal court, and also required the EPA to regulate more airborne pollutants. We attached the amendment to a hazardous waste clean-up bill moving through the House.
By the time our amendment came before the full House on December 10, 1985, it had been stripped of everything but the Toxic Release Inventory. The inventory did nothing to limit emissions or impose a single new cost—it simply established a way to measure airborne pollution. But the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the industry trade group, virulently opposed even this much, and claimed that our survey’s estimate of the 80 million tons of pollution wildly exaggerated the true amount.
Industry groups and their allies launched a full-court press to induce panic and whip up opposition. Republican congressmen claimed that the measure would force hardware stores, gas stations, and beauty parlors to document which chemicals they release. But still we prevailed by the narrowest of margins, 212-211, and early the next year the concept became law.
By the end of 1986, the Clean Air Act appeared no closer to renewal, the problem of acid rain was getting worse, and the EPA still would not regulate more than a handful of hazardous substances. But beneath the surface, the debate was moving our way, and we could now claim a tangible legislative achievement. The National Toxic Release Inventory could not, of course, reduce air pollution. But the invaluable information it provided became the basis for legislation that could. The first report appeared in March 1989 and immediately became front-page news across the country: It showed that a staggering 2.7 billion pounds of toxic air pollution was released into the air in 1987.
Though it wasn’t clear at the time, the turning point in the decade-long battle for clean air occurred during the next session of Congress, in another showdown over deadlines. Air quality sanctions due to take effect on the last day of the year, December 31, 1987, convinced many in Washington that an agreement had to be near. House negotiations opened in July, but after several months it became clear that not even the impending deadline would force a resolution.
With sanctions set to strike nearly every urban area, focus shifted to postponement. Industry and its allies favored a two-year extension that would effectively remove any pressure on Congress to act promptly. I considered this pressure valuable motivation, and with Silvio Conte, a Massachusetts Republican, offered an amendment extending the deadline by just eight months. Since the competing provisions required a floor vote, this soon shaped up as the first measure of House sentiment toward clean air in several years, and a defining test of strength.
The day before the vote, Dingell and John Murtha, a formidable Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, took the unusual step of predicting that their side would win handily. This threw us, since our count showed us winning narrowly. When voting began the next day, Dingell and Murtha looked on in dismay as presumed allies began to go our way, just a few at first, and then, as the outcome became clear, a stampede that ultimately gave us a ninety-five-vote margin—and a ringing declaration of where Congress now stood.
This resounding defeat of those who had held the upper hand for so long sent a shockwave through Washington. Everyone suddenly realized that the forces of industry had badly overestimated the willingness of many members, especially Northeastern Republicans, to go on record against the environment. Absent a pressing local reason to do so, most simply didn’t see the need.
The psychological advantage we gained from this victory drove the subsequent debate. Dingell had strength enough in committee to defeat us on most days. But we had prevailed in all three votes of the full House—on the Dannemeyer-Waxman amendment, the Toxic Release Inventory, and now the eight-month extension. The vision of ramming it through no longer an option, Dingell and his allies began to doubt whether they could still prevail if a measure went to the floor. Industry confidence began to collapse.
Throughout the next year the Energy and Commerce Committee negotiated toward a broad overhaul of the Clean Air Act. Though our opponents had become more interested in resolving issues than in battling them out, we could not reach agreement before Congress adjourned. But our disappointment did not last long.
IN 1989, OUTSIDE EVENTS CONSPIRED ONCE AGAIN TO JERK THE debate even further in our direction. In Washington, Ronald Reagan gave way to George H. W. Bush, who bid to distinguish himself from his predecessor by declaring that he would be “the environmental president” and promising to renew the Clean Air Act. George Mitchell of Maine replaced Robert Byrd of West Virginia as Senate majority leader, instantly transforming the fight over acid rain: The Senate’s leading Democrat became someone whose constituents suffered, rather than prospered, from the regulatory status quo. Beyond Washington, the effects of weak environmental laws were coming into visibility everywhere. Needles and other medical waste started washing up on the Jersey Shore. The first report from the National Toxic Registry Index appeared, laying waste to the industry claim that severe air pollution was not a problem. And then, on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, killing most wildlife and poisoning miles of pristine Alaskan coastline.
Despite claims of environmental commitment, President Bush and his administration came up with a revision of the Clean Air Act that was still weaker than what we wanted. He nevertheless did us a tremendous service by declaring the environment a presidential priority and submitting his own bill—he put his reputation on the line, which greatly increased the chance that some version of the Clean Air Act would become law. Our job became taking his bill and rewriting it to match his lofty rhetoric.
Using the Bush bill as our vehicle, rather than introduce a competing measure, we scheduled a series of hearings to highlight its major deficiencies and lay the groundwork for strengthening amendments. Momentum had swung to our side, but there remained countless ways for our opponents to weaken a bill so that the law wouldn’t have its intended effects—in some cases, a single word change was enough to do the trick.
As we prepared to debate Bush’s bill, a contact in the EPA leaked my staff an earlier draft of the plan that enabled us to compare the two, and see where and how the final product had been diluted. The original Clean Air Act of 1970 established the EPA administrator’s role under the law in unambiguous language: It was written that he or she “shall” carry out the enumerated duties. The early Bush draft maintained this language—but the final version swapped “shall” for “may,” thereby introducing the possibility that a future EPA administrator, should he or she so desire, “may” choose not to enforce the law.
Bush selected as his first EPA administrator William Reilly, a moderate environmentalist, whom we summoned before the subcommittee to explain this curious choice of word. Reilly insisted that he had every intention of enforcing the law to its fullest extent. But we kept pressing him: Why the tricky language? He finally conceded that he could not explain it. (More likely he could, but chose not to.) Reilly later admitted to me that while our grilling had been tough, what bothered him most about the hearing was that none of his fellow Republicans had spoken up in his defense. None was familiar enough with the bill’s details to argue over them.
By now, our clean air agenda had grown to encompass four parts: acid rain, smog, toxic air pollutants, and a new issue, ozone depletion. Scientists warned that the hole in the earth’s atmospheric ozone layer would have serious climatic consequences were it allowed to continue growing. Fixing the problem entailed reducing the amount of man-made ozone-depleting chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which meant changing industrial manufacturing processes. This drew opposition from the usual quarters. At one memorable proceeding, Bill Dannemeyer proposed building giant fans that would blow ozone up into the stratosphere. But few any longer doubted that there would be major improvements in the law.
During the 1980s, Congress came to consider more and more environmental provisions that were undesirable from an industry standpoint. And each year the proposals grew stronger. Everyone now had something to fear: Smog standards hit automakers, acid rain measures hit utilities and coal, toxic emission limits hit chemical companies, and CFC restrictions hit appliance manufacturers. The likelihood that Congress would finally mandate tougher air standards compelled each of these interests to rethink its strategy. Reductions had to come from somewhere—therefore any breaks given to one industry came at the expense of the others. Business interests that had once moved in lockstep now began looking out for themselves.
This was precisely the opposite dynamic to that of 1982, when everyone lined up behind Dingell. Back then, we targeted industries like chemical manufacturing because we didn’t have the strength to take on President Reagan and Dingell directly. But with every industry now fighting to deny breaks to the rest, Dingell and the automakers no longer held such a strong hand. We decided to try our luck and go right after them. If we could beat Dingell and set tough standards for automobile emissions, we wagered that he would be more inclined to compromise on everything else. In September, when the time came to decide on amendments, I engineered an early showdown on a measure I’d introduced setting strict tailpipe standards.
Like so many of our previous fights, this one looked to be close. To ensure that no one missed its overriding significance, and to pressure members to vote with us, I took to describing it as “the environmental vote of the decade,” a characterization that the press eagerly adopted. To rattle industry, I told reporters that I expected the “real” fight to come on the House floor, where Dingell had not fared well, while behind the scenes, we set to work trying to take away some of his support.
The struggle came down to two members ordinarily inclined toward him. Tom Tauke, an Iowa Republican, worried that stricter emission standards would hurt his district—his concern was not over autos, however, but over tractors and other farm equipment that fell under the same standard. By assuring him that they would not be singled out for tougher requirements, we were able to bring him along. Ralph Hall, the conservative Democrat from Texas, had balked at what he perceived to be overambitious limits on auto emissions. One way in which Congress worked to reduce pollution was by setting requirements and letting industry develop the technology to meet them, a mechanism known as “technology forcing standards.” This is how the catalytic converter, among other innovations, was brought into being. The automakers routinely claimed that they couldn’t possibly meet our proposed standards, though most experts believed that they could. We walked Hall through the amendment, section by section, explaining why our goals were feasible, and how, in the event that they turned out not to be, the EPA would be permitted to adjust the standards later on. Satisfied by what we told him, he approached Dingell in an anteroom just off the committee chambers. “John,” he said, “I think Henry’s got something here.” This is a congressman’s way of conveying that he intends to support something—and by doing so, Hall also gently told Dingell that he was going to lose the fight.
For more than a decade, Dingell and I had battled ferociously over the Clean Air Act, and we had often tried to get him to sit down and work out a deal. Dingell never budged, and so neither did I, each of us believing that we would prevail when matters came to a vote. Seeing that this was now unlikely to happen on the issue so important to him, Dingell did what any good congressman would do, and sat down to negotiate the best possible deal for his constituents. Two hours later, we had settled on the outline of an agreement. Most importantly, our agreement was “through conference,” meaning that no changes could be made in conference with the Senate unless all parties agreed, which made success seem all the more likely.
The other members of the House were thunderstruck by the news—the deal had seemingly come out of the blue. “We had thought it would be King Kong versus Godzilla,” Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, remarked afterward. But everyone recognized, with a mix of relief and excitement, that the long campaign for clean air had passed what had sometimes appeared an insurmountable obstacle. When Dingell and I reached across the conference table to formally shake hands on the agreement, the committee room burst into loud applause.
FROM THERE, THE BILL FOLLOWED A SLOW BUT STEADY PATH TO the president. Having struck a deal on auto emissions, Dingell and I had every incentive to find further agreements so that we could continue to be together. The negotiations carried on after the subcommittee reported the bill to the full committee, and by the following spring a broad overhaul of the Clean Air Act had taken shape.
The struggle over acid rain between the Midwest and the rest of the country continued to be a major source of contention. Only a series of marathon negotiating sessions bought a settlement. One of the longest, to hammer out an acid rain compromise, began on the morning of April 4 and dragged on for thirty-four mind-numbing hours. “You know the difference between being in a medium-security prison and being in Congress?” mused Illinois Democrat Terry Bruce during a break. “There isn’t any. In both facilities you can walk around all you want—you just can’t leave.”
Late the next evening, our business finally complete, the bleary-eyed members of the Energy and Commerce Committee voted 42-1 (Bill Dannemeyer dissenting) to move the clean air bill onto the House floor, and a few weeks later, the House overwhelmingly ratified our work 401-21.
Dingell was practically wistful. “We negotiated rather than fought,” he told reporters. “It’s a process with which I am not entirely comfortable, but it has been a success. It is a good piece of legislation.” I shared his sentiments.
The Bush administration made a key strategic miscalculation that wound up strengthening the law considerably in the final stages of negotiation. Bush officials played an active role in negotiating the Senate bill, but not its House counterpart. Assuming that a weaker bill would emerge from the House, White House negotiators had insisted that the Senate agreement bind its participants only through the floor vote, and not through the subsequent House-Senate conference, as Dingell and I had agreed to do. By freeing senators to vote as they wished, the administration expected that they would combine the weakest elements of both bills into the final legislation. Instead, with an election looming, they supported the strongest provisions in both bills, producing a law that was much better than either the House or Senate drafts had been.
With little choice, President Bush signed the Clean Air Act Amendments into law on November 15, 1990.
THE CLEAN AIR ACT AMENDMENTS OF 1990 WERE THE OUTCOME of one of the longest, most scrutinized, and hardest fought legislative battles that Washington had witnessed in decades. But that effort yielded a law that ranks as one of Congress’s historic achievements.
Five years after its passage, more than half the U.S. cities that exceeded urban smog standards had come into compliance. Production of ozone-depleting chemicals had dropped by more than 90 percent. Power plant emissions that cause acid rain fell to half their 1980 levels, and at a fraction of the cost industry had predicted. Cancer-causing toxic emissions decreased by 1.6 billion tons annually, a drop of more than 25 percent. The EPA’s meager list of five hazardous air pollutants expanded to 189, including such potentially lethal substances as dioxin, mercury, and methyl isocyanate, the chemical that destroyed Bhopal. When fully implemented, the law will prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths, tens of thousands of hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and millions of lost workdays each year.
Some of the greatest successes have come in the most contentious area of debate. In 1989, Ford Motor Company executives testified that “we just do not have the technology to comply” with new tailpipe standards. Yet within four years automakers managed to do just that, and the controversial “technology forcing standards” triggered development of sophisticated engine-control equipment that produced lower pollution, more power, and greater fuel economy. Today’s typical new car is twenty times cleaner than a comparable model in 1981, and hybrids like Ford’s Escape are forty to fifty times as much. In fact, automakers met with relative ease the ambitious standards they once claimed would destroy jobs and cast the economy into recession—the law worked so well that it quickly became hard to recall what all the fuss had been about.
The Clean Air Act offers several lessons. The first, and most important, is that success is possible even against overwhelming opposition. What began as a seemingly unstoppable assault on a landmark law ended with the enactment of the strongest environmental legislation in American history. The entire battle unfolded while Republicans controlled the White House. Despite fierce opposition throughout, the 1990 measure was stronger in almost every respect than the bills debated in the 1980s. And in the end, even Godzilla and King Kong came together.
The second lesson is that while industry claims often frame the debate, they are usually exaggerated, not accurate descriptions of the truth but tactics to stop unwanted measures, regardless of need or merit. Many business interests predicted catastrophe were the law enacted. DuPont Chemical warned of “severe economic and social disruption,” and Mobil “severe supply chain disruptions” for gasoline. But no one rioted, the economy grew, and Americans never had a problem filling up their tanks.
This is true largely because of the third lesson: Good legislation works as intended. The Clean Air Act passed only after years of oversight hearings, which had singled out the worst problems and the best solutions, and after intense debate over how it was to be drafted had accounted for the concerns of all sides. Rather than split the difference, the focus stayed fixed on the goal of achieving clean air in a way that would work for everyone—and earned the bill broad support from both parties as a result. Because it was so carefully designed, the Clean Air Act has stood up to subsequent White House efforts to weaken it and industry lawsuits challenging it. Today, it stands as testimony that Congress can still find ways to dramatically improve the quality of everyone’s life and well-being that serve citizens and businesses alike.