Rick Shenkman: Dismantling an Agency Isn't Easy






Rick Shenkman is the publisher of the History News Network and author of "Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter." He wrote this for the New York Times's "Room for Debate" feature on the question, "What if Republicans Close the E.P.A.?"

Not even Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the conservative movement, attempted to abolish the E.P.A. — and with good reason. There was an easier way to sabotage environmental regulations, which was after all the goal. It was to put deregulators in charge of the agency and then cut its budget. The first year of his administration, E.P.A. enforcement actions referred to the Justice Department fell by 69 percent. Only a scandal involving one Anne Gorsuch Burford, the now forgotten administrator of the agency, prevented its wholesale dismantling just a decade after it was established by (surprise!) Richard Nixon.

Nixon had roared into Washington to cleanse the Augean stables to the cheers of conservatives hostile to big government. Alas, for their sake, he turned out to be a stealth happy regulator, helping establish, in addition to the E.P.A., the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Office of Consumer Affairs, among other initiatives.

Why was Nixon persuaded to establish the E.P.A.? Like the leading lights of the progressive movement, he was appalled by government inefficiency. The E.P.A. nicely consolidated functions that previously had been the responsibility of 44 agencies and 9 departments. (In the topsy-turvy world of G.O.P. politics, it is now claimed that abolishing the E.P.A. will enhance government efficiency. The claim on behalf of one bill introduced this spring is that consolidating the departments of energy and the E.P.A. will save a “staggering” $3 billion the first year alone.)

Ten years after its founding, the E.P.A. had become so much a fixture in Washington that Reagan never considered abolishing it outright. Only the Energy Department, established just a few years earlier by Jimmy Carter, was slated for abolition, and it survived. In Reagan’s diary is a curious passage in which he brags that “I promised to do away with the Energy Dept. Jim Edwards (Sec.) has carried this out.” This entry is recorded on Page 56. Some 617 pages and seven years later, the Energy Department is apparently still in existence as Reagan bemoans the request of bureaucrats for a $21 million increase in its budget. Moral of this story: Getting rid of departments ain’t easy.

There is another entry in Reagan’s diary that caught my eye as I was researching his record. It is the entry from Wednesday, March 16, 1983. Reagan notes in passing that he “dropped in on a meeting with several dept. heads from the E.P.A.” following the resignation of Anne Gorsuch Burford, who had been cited for contempt of Congress. Reagan continued: “We’re trying to boost their morale.” The statement fascinates. Was the intention to buck them up so that they could continue writing new regulations? Or was it to bolster their spirits as they unwrote regulations? The latter is more likely. When people hostile to government are put in charge, it’s seldom to make government more efficient, no matter what they say.



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