The Resurgence of Private Property Rights under Ronald Reagan

Seminararbeit, 2015

15 Seiten, Note: 1,3



1.General Introduction
1.1. Introduction and Problem Identification
1.2. Scientific Approach

2.The Two Main Variables of American Environmental Policy Formulation
2.1. The Authority of the Executive Branch
2.2. The Reagan and the Bush presidencies and Their Environmental Agenda
2.3. Environmental policy-making in the legislative branch

3.Implementation: Administration and Legislation
3.1. Environmental Legislation
3.2. Policy of the Environmental Protection Agency

4.Concluding Thoughts



List of Abbreviations

1. General Introduction

1. 1. Introduction and Problem Identification

“[…] Mr. Reagan seemed to have selected the nation's environmental policies as a prime target of his social revolution.” (Shabecoff, 1989: 1)

“Calling George Bush an environmentalist is like calling Ayatollah Khomeini a human rights activist” – John O´Connor, director of the National Toxics Campaign (Shields, 1989)

Only a few other administrations in American History took in office with more attacks regarding their environmental policy than the Reagan and Bush administrations. Especially President Reagan established a completely new approach towards environmental protection in the federal administration. President Reagan´s victory in the presidential elections in 1980 marked the beginning of a conservative realignment in American politics and secured the influence of the right wing of the Republican Party and participants of the Sagebrush Rebellion. (Kraft, 2015: 125) In addition, twelve newly elected Republican senators in 1980 strengthened conservative influence. This “Reagan revolution” marked the beginning of a new era in American environmental policy which lasted for twelve years until Clinton administration took office in 1993. The reactions after Ronald Reagan´s passing by in 2004 also indicate that the legacy of his presidency regarding environmental policy remains highly controversial. While supporters of his policy highlight his wilderness protection achievements, his opponents call him am reactionary who destroyed the results of decades of environmental legislation (Grist, 2004). But did Reagan´s inauguration end the “Green Decade” as proclaimed by President Nixon completely? Is public opinion, which is often distorted by heat of debate, really a reliable source? Or more precisely: By the time the George H. W. Bush administration left the White House in January 1993, how far had environmental policy progressed or regressed since 1980?

1. 2. Scientific Approach

To answer this question, this paper analyses the environmental policy process in the United States from January 1981 to January 1993. Though by focusing only on policy formulation, implementation and evaluation one cannot gain a causal understanding of behavior (White, 1994: 860), this approach is adequate so gain a basic understanding of the environmental policy during the Reagan and the Bush presidencies. Chapter 2 examines formulation of environmental policy by the two main protagonists of American politics, which of course are the presidency for the executive branch and Congress for the legislative branch. Chapter 3 is about implementation of environmental policy in this era as shown by the two examples of the Environmental Protection Agency and a short survey of environmental protection legislation by Congress. The EPA should characterize the environmental policy pursued by the administration. In contrast the survey should highlight the approach of the Congress towards environmental policy. Did the Democratic majority in the House succeed in fortifying the previous decade’s progress in environmental protection? (Kraft, 2015: 125) Chapter 4 is an attempt to answer the main question by trying to identify the main direction of environmental policy of this era. Have the presidents succeeded with their approach to environmental policy and how did this influence the United States in the following decades? If one specifies progress and regress in environmental policy in their period, which one prevails? Unfortunately this questions cannot be answered adequately due to the length of the paper, but the results should provide a satisfactory overview of this complex topic that combines very different facets of policy and politics.

2. The Two Main Variables of American Environmental Policy Formulation

2. 1. The Authority of the Executive Branch

The executive branch is characterized by institutional pluralism and power division. Several departments and independent agencies participate in setting the environmental agenda. Here for four departments are crucial: Interior, Agriculture, Energy and the State Department. Other departments such as Commerce and Transportation are important because of their research and management capabilities on transit, oil pollution and other. Legislation installed also agencies with crucial responsibilities regarding the environment. Selected offices in the executive office of the President are dealing with formulating and implementing environmental policies, like the Council on Environmental Quality which coordinates the entire national environmental policy. But the two major agencies are the NRC and, of course, the EPA. The NRC licenses and regulates all nuclear power plants in the country. Therefore, it determines the shape of the energy policy. The EPA is the most powerful agency regarding issues of environmental protection because of its authority for the major environmental protection statutes. The EPA itself is divided into separate offices dealing with specific issues. Each office is led by an assistant administrator with responsibility for radiation or solid waste, for example. (Kraft, 2015).

Both the NRC and the EPA are independent agencies which means that they are capable of carrying out a wide range of activities. Especially they have the authority on managing various regulatory functions without reporting directly to the President or Congress. “They can issue rules that govern certain sections of the economy, oversee implementation of those rules, and adjudicate disputes over implementation of the rules.” (Peters et. a., 2008:286) This led to a new problem: The Executive Office began to lose control of the agencies. It reacted by shaping administrative appointments and the budget. (Hays, 2000)

2. 2. The Reagan and the Bush presidencies and Their Environmental Agenda

President Ronald Reagan took office on January 20th 1981 after defeating President Jimmy Carter in a landslide victory in November 1980.

This remarkable victory over a sitting president had numerous reasons. The most crucial of them was the weak economy of the late 1970s and high inflation during this period which caused significant losses in the nation´s wealth. During his campaign he announced his economic recovery program based on supply-side economics that included severe cuts in federal spending. (Shade/Campbell, 2003: 941) Despite the fact that later generation often condemn Reagan as a president who did not care about the environment, his environmental record as governor of California has been quite impressive. He set aside 145.000 acres of land for the state park system which is still an uncontested scale by any other Governor. Furthermore he addressed the tremendous smog problem in California by installing the Air Resources Board, alongside with numerous other measures to conserve the natural resources of California. But when he became president in 1981, the necessity of fiscal conservatism became acknowledged nationwide. Federal regulation was held responsible for the economic crisis, even by many Democratic politicians. So when Reagan took office, his priority was not to extend federal regulation on the environment, but to bring back regulatory activity. Because the EPA was one of the most expensive federal agencies and caused an extreme amount of bureaucracy, this part of the administration became one of his priority tasks to clean up, all the more as the lame duck Congress establishes an inapplicable Superfund cleanup program. This program was so ill-designed that it caused the resignation of Reagans first EPA Administrator. (Wisman, 1985)

The second big battleground of Reagan´s first term was the question of the management of federal lands by his Secretary of the Interior James Watt. Watt intensified the exploration of natural resources on federal lands and often accepted damages on the environment caused by this explorations. Another controversy had been caused by his moratorium on new land acquisitions. Despite this moratorium the federal government continued to add land to environmental protection programs.

Because the President favored economic recovery instead of environmental protection, he faced serious opposition from environmentalists. But Reagan´s personal attitude towards environmentalism has been, at least, not negative (Hayward, 2009). In a nutshell one can say that Ronald Reagan himself favored environmental policy, but he has been forced into preferring his economic agenda instead. But where is his reputation as an enemy of environmental protection originating from? President Reagan did not only involve many participants of the Sagebrush Rebellion in his decision making process, but he also nominated many of them for positions in the national administration. Unlike the President himself, these persons´ course of action was hostile towards protecting the environment. These mostly-right Republicans wanted to reverse the achievements of environmental protection in the previous decades. But after a few years, facing opposition from Congress and a hostile public opinion towards their course of action, the influence of this conservative network on the national agenda shrank (Kraft, 2015: 125). One possible explanation is, that the President succeeded in pursuing his agenda regarding economic recovery in his first term and he could grant more space for environmental protection. On the other hand one can argue that the President was just too anxious to curtail the programs favored by Congress or public opinion. In retrospect an evolution toward stronger environmental policies can be seen during the Reagan administration. Increasing public support forced the President to continue protecting the environment. The membership of environmentalist groups grew as fast as their political influence. The global trend indicated in this direction, too.

This development has been also realized by the Bush administration. During his run for presidency he announced a new approach to environmental policy and promised to renew the conservationist tradition of former president Theodore Roosevelt. Despite this rhetoric, the president had to deal with open internal divisions in his administration regarding environmental policy. Therefore the break with Reagan´s policy was not as radical as announced. This inefficient managing of environmental topics contributed to his loss in public approval. As the Democrats started to increase their attacks on his environmental agenda, he reacted with counter-attacks railing against his opponents and calling them “environmental extremists” (Kraft, 2015; Becher, 2000: 334; Vig, 1995).

In summary, we can see that both presidents started in office with a certain environmental agenda, but toward the end of term they have been forced by public opinion and Congress to rethink their course of action.


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The Resurgence of Private Property Rights under Ronald Reagan
Hochschule für Politik München  (Lehrbereich Internationale Politik)
Environmental, Climate and Energy Policy of the United States
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
568 KB
resurgence, private, property, rights, ronald, reagan
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Richard Schenk (Autor:in), 2015, The Resurgence of Private Property Rights under Ronald Reagan, München, GRIN Verlag,


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