In the early 1970s, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act on nearly unanimous votes. The overwhelming support for these new laws reflected not only the horrific condition of America’s air, water, and landscape at the time, but also an appreciation of the collective action problem states faced, necessitating federal action.
The major environmental laws that passed in the following years were predicated on the need to set a federal floor for environmental standards in order to provide all Americans with a basic right to clean air, safe water, and a healthy environment, no matter the state they lived in. The laws also represented an understanding that states were no more likely to act alone in investing in new regulatory programs than a business would be to self-regulate without corresponding action from its competitors.
The clear consensus, then, was that the federal government must act to end the race to the bottom among states, setting minimum standards for all 50 states that some could then choose to exceed. Fast forward 40-plus years, and we must now contemplate what happens when the federal government takes a sledgehammer to the regulatory floor.
The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, made his bones as a champion of the federalist approach to environmental regulation. And even though this ideological cloak is one that Pruitt will be quick to doff when it suits his true guiding interest in deregulation, we can ...