A New Classification of U.S. Environmental Laws

27 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2014 Last revised: 1 Oct 2020

See all articles by Frank T. Manheim

Frank T. Manheim

Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University

Date Written: April 3, 2014


A database of U.S. environmental and related laws now includes over 700 statutes ranging in date from 1789 (The Northwest Ordinance Act, signed by George Washington) to 2011.The new classification system facilitates identification of historical trends. Supplementary tables include the histories of cabinet departments, bureaus, and agencies.

Study of environmental law and policy history aided by the database reveals cyclic trends in U.S. lawmaking and government performance. Early laws under the first six presidents delegated operational policymaking to federal officials or agencies, whose leaders as well as employees were generally appointed on the basis of competence.

The spoils system initiated by Andrew Jackson (1829-37) resulted in deterioration in government functions, reaching a peak in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77). Lack of trust in government officials and agencies led to extreme micromanagement in Congressional lawmaking.

Federal agencies gained public respect as a result of the reform movement of the late 19th Century. Congress responded by delegating authority for formulating operating policy to agencies. Administrative laws rarely exceeded 20 pages in length.

The cooperative system between Congress and federal agencies broke down after WWII as a consequence of turbulent events in the 1960s. Pathbreaking environmental laws in 1970s transferred leadership for detailed regulatory policy from professional agencies to Congress, resulting in dramatic increase in the length and complexity of laws.

Keywords: environmental history, law classification, spoils system, 19th Century government reform, federal agencies, leader competence

JEL Classification: D73, D74, H77, K32, K41, L98, P11, Q28, Q48

Suggested Citation

Manheim, Frank T., A New Classification of U.S. Environmental Laws (April 3, 2014). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2420191 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2420191

Frank T. Manheim (Contact Author)

Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University ( email )

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HOME PAGE: http://policy.gmu.edu/manheim

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