James K. Conant, Peter J. Balint. The Life Cycles of the Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency: 1970-2035. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 216 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-020371-9.
Reviewed by David B. Robertson (University of Missouri-Saint Louis)
Published on H-Environment (August, 2016)
Commissioned by David T. Benac
The US Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are nearly half a century old. How have they changed since their founding in 1970, and why? James Conant and Peter Balint, policy scholars at George Mason University, provide a smart and constructive analysis of the dynamic changes in these two vital environmental policy institutions. This social science history measures changes in budgets and personnel, the two most basic measures of an agency’s strength. Both agencies have survived, despite antagonistic or indifferent presidents and despite increasingly bitter political polarization over the environment. Their importance and durability makes the book significant for environmental and political historians.
The CEQ and EPA started off with a bang, bookending the first Earth Day in the spring of 1970. Authorized by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, the CEQ, a presidential advisory agency, started up in February 1970. The following December, the EPA opened its doors. Budgets and staff grew rapidly in both in the early 1970s, but both leveled off and experienced deep cuts in the early Reagan administration. The agencies diverged thereafter. The CEQ never fully recovered. During the early Clinton administration, it was briefly nonexistent (but did not die). The George W. Bush administration sustained the CEQ budget, using the Council as a weapon against regulation. The EPA, like the CEQ, faced severe cuts in the early 1980s. But the EPA’s budget grew from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and since then, the EPA’s resources have waxed and waned.
In short, neither agency simply withered under Republican presidents or bloomed under Democrats. Their budgets “were highly volatile over the forty-year period from 1970 to 2010” (p. 117). What explains these “life-cycles” of the CEQ and EPA? The authors test four types of explanations, drawn from policy studies literature. First, a biological model posits that agencies (if they survive infancy) grow quickly, and eventually mature into stability, and then develop a kind of sclerosis and may die. Second, a partisan political model projects that institutions rise and fall with a change in the partisan composition; these agencies should expand when Democrats hold power, and should contract when Republicans succeed them. Third, the incremental model posits that institutions like CEQ and EPA only experience small, year-to-year differences, changing gradually only over long periods of time. A fourth model, the issue-attention cycle, draws on Anthony Downs’s widely read explanation of the explosion of environmental policy in the Nixon administration. This model projects that agencies grow with spikes of public attention and headlines, but shrink when public interest moves on to other issues.
How do these alternative models of life cycle work? Alone, none works very well. Of all the models, the issue-attention cycle fares the best. Different models fit different points in agency history. The issue-attention cycle model seems to contribute the most to understanding spikes of support, while partisan politics often explains cutbacks. The partisan political model “captured what turned out to the defining moment of the CEQ’s life cycle,” when the early Reagan administration “put the CEQ into a deep slumber” (p. 107). The biological model suggests that the sheer difference of size between the CEQ, a small staff agency in the Executive Office of the President, and the EPA, a large regulatory agency, made the CEQ much less capable of resisting the challenges posed by the president and the political environment.
The authors make an intriguing effort to project the future of the CEQ and the EPA, but the best that can be said of the CEQ is that it is likely to survive in some form. The EPA should fare better, because of its size, responsibilities, and the difficulty of aligning the president and both houses of Congress on either eradicating or drastically expanding it.
This book reminds us that history is contingent, but not just as it pleases. Fragmented American government has so many moving parts that its institutions defy simple explanation. Policy rarely gets made if it harms the political futures of those who control it. Bursts of attention, like those set off by Earth Day and the Exxon Valdez, push government into action and produce durable institutions that can carry on the agenda. But this book does not scratch the surface of the deeper environmental politics of these institutions over time. The Reagan administration backtracked from its war on the EPA after its political abuse by Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford scandalized public opinion. The book’s omission of this prominent moment in EPA history underscores its limitations, and the importance of merging the systematic analysis of the book with the texture and subtlety of historical analysis. Conant and Balint have begun to explore the levers that can and must make future change happen. We have to complement such studies by understanding what policymakers have and will make of those levers--especially when environmental disaster next makes headlines.
. Anthony Downs, “Up and Down with Ecology--the Issue-Attention Cycle,” Public Interest 28 (1972): 38-50.
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David B. Robertson. Review of Conant, James K.; Balint, Peter J., The Life Cycles of the Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency: 1970-2035.
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