Fateful Collision: how revolutionary environmental laws of the 1970s led to a rift in American society

26 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2020 Last revised: 26 Sep 2022

See all articles by Frank T. Manheim

Frank T. Manheim

Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University

Date Written: October 6, 2020


From the later 19th Century to the early 1970s the U.S. was consistently at the frontier of publicly relevant technology and policy. Groundbreaking environmental laws of the early 1970s continued this tradition. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 (CAA) and subsequent environmental laws made rapid progress against environmental pollution; the U.S. became the world leader in environmental policy.

However, the CAA transformed the existing system of short laws and independent federal technical agencies that maintained cooperative relationships with states and the private sector. The CAA and subsequent laws gave command & control authority to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over all national activity related to environmental pollution. Adversarial regulatory provisions including citizen suit in federal court especially affected manufacturing and industry, the prime sources of pollution. The new laws promoted litigiousness and aroused antagonism in the business community. The results contributed to economic decline and exodus of business from manufacturing and industry to economic sectors less affected by the new regulations.

Reacting to the developments and the stagflation of the 1970s, zealous officials in the first Reagan administration rolled back regulatory enforcement and controls on leasing of federal lands. This led to Congressional backlash. Conflict over environmental policy widened to partisan political polarization. In the 1980s the Democratic Party became the party of environment and the Republican Party became the party of business and industry. The rift led to Congressional gridlock, which continues to cripple the federal governmentʻs ability to address major national problems, including global climate change.

The collision in the title refers to the conflict of powerful new environmental laws in the 1970s with economic development. It is suggested that to resolve polarization in U.S. society it will be necessary for the U.S. to move from command & control regulation and toward more cooperative environmental policies adopted by European nations. These have allowed Europe to become the world leader in global climate change performance and policy.

Keywords: Environmental policy, regulation, Congressional lawmaking, polarization, environment, Clean Air Act Amendments

Suggested Citation

Manheim, Frank T., Fateful Collision: how revolutionary environmental laws of the 1970s led to a rift in American society (October 6, 2020). C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State Research Paper , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3706466 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3706466

Frank T. Manheim (Contact Author)

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

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