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In First 100 Days, Congress Took Aim at the Democratic Foundations of America’s Environmental Laws

The Capitol Dome glows in the early morning light, January 2009.

A review of all roll-call votes cast in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives in 2017 shows that Congress and the Trump administration have launched an assault on environmental and public health standards that is unconventional in its approach and anti-democratic in its objective. Instead of seeking up or down votes on high profile environmental topics—such as on whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, overturn limits on carbon pollution from power plants, or withdraw protections for national monuments—Republican leaders in Congress are pursuing lower-profile but highly consequential changes to regulatory and legal processes that restrict the rights of citizens and communities to shape U.S. public health and environmental policy. Simply put, the 115th Congress is dismantling the democratic foundations of America’s environmental laws and executing a radical and unprecedented transfer of policymaking power to corporations.

Congress has adopted Trump’s anti-democratic agenda 

In its first months in office, President Donald Trump has expressed contempt for America’s judicial system, questioned the integrity of America’s democratic elections, given corporations and billionaires unprecedented—and potentially unethical—access to power, and selected a White House chief strategist in Steve Bannon who, according to Politico, has an “anti-democratic worldview.” In signing an executive order to dismantle U.S. efforts to fight climate change, discounting the role of science in informing public policy, and overturning rules that thousands of Americans commented on favorably, Trump has applied his anti-democratic tendencies to the formulation of what may be the most anti-environmental policy agenda in recent history.

Congress has swiftly followed Trump’s approach in attacking both environmental protections and democratic processes. A Center for American Progress review of roll-call votes shows that the 115th Congress has voted against the environment 42 times in its first 100 days.* For 27 of these votes, Congress shied away from direct attacks on environmental laws and instead voted to make it harder for federal agencies to set pollution limits and weakened the ability of the public to hold polluters to account. On nine separate occasions, Congress abused a rarely used law, the Congressional Review Act, or CRA, to permanently negate several environmental rules that the Obama administration had finalized after years of stakeholder input and comment.

This track record tells a clear story: Congress is eager to cater to the wishes of big corporations but is afraid to do so in a transparent way.

Undermining environmental protections through the backdoor

The House has voted 27 times to make it harder for the EPA to set new pollution limits or implement the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws. Their approach has been clandestine: They have tucked these attacks in bills with innocuous-sounding names, such as the Regulatory Accountability Act or the Regulatory Integrity Act. So far, the Senate has yet to vote on any of these measures.

Before Trump was even inaugurated, the House voted on legislation that would give Congress the power to block an EPA rule—such as a new air quality standard—without even taking a vote. The House also approved a bill that would allow Congress to group together multiple rules passed at the end of the previous president’s term for a single vote, thereby eliminating any opportunity for meaningful debate. With these bills, the House voted to give itself new power to eliminate popular environmental protections with minimal transparency and accountability.

In addition, the House has voted to require agencies to repeal existing rules before enacting new ones; add countless layers of meaningless red tape; and prevent agencies from using the best science to inform their decision-making. Even amendments that would have exempted important protections, such as clean air, nuclear safety, and children’s health, from some of these onerous bills failed to pass. The goal is clear: Throw up as many roadblocks to effective rule-making as possible.

For existing rules, the House also wants to make it more difficult for the public to use the courts to hold polluters accountable. One such bill would make it harder to file class action lawsuits against polluters that caused harm. The House also voted to add additional hurdles for plaintiffs and supported legislation that could have a chilling effect on justified environmental cases.

These backdoor attacks should come as no surprise. Public opinion research shows that voters are concerned about what the Republican-led Congress’ agenda means for environmental protections. Instead of attacking clean air and water head on—something that would be politically unpopular—Congress is attacking the very workings of government under a false narrative of reform.

An unprecedented attack on finalized environmental protections

During the first 100 days of the 115th Congress, the House and Senate have voted nine times to use the CRA to overturn important Obama-era environmental protections. The CRA is an obscure law that gives Congress the ability to block a final rule and prevent the agency from issuing any substantively similar rule without Congressional approval. Prior to this Congress, the CRA had been used only once to overturn a final rule.

At the behest of the coal industry, Congress used the CRA to overturn the Stream Protection Rule, which would have protected waterways from toxic coal mining waste. Congress gave in to demands from Exxon Mobil and other oil companies to repeal a rule to discourage bribery of foreign oligarchs. They have used the CRA to attack public lands protections, including policies to increase public input in public lands management decisions and restrict hunting in the National Wildlife Refuge System in Alaska. Additionally, the House has voted to repeal a rule that limits the venting, flaring, and leaking of methane from oil and gas production on public lands.

Looking ahead

The early roll-call votes of the 115th Congress suggest that majority leaders in the House and Senate intend to pursue an ambitious anti-environmental agenda that delivers special breaks and additional power to corporate interests while eroding the ability of citizens and communities to gain protections from environmental threats. Whether congressional leaders and the Trump administration are successful in radically restricting democratic access to environmental laws will depend, in large measure, on the extent and intensity of political blowback that lawmakers will experience as deeply unpopular anti-environmental proposals are brought to light. It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant and, in this case, it may also prove to be the best safeguard for basic democratic traditions and bedrock environmental laws.

Alison Cassady is the Director of Domestic Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Howard Marano is a Research Assistant for the Energy Policy team at the Center.

*Authors’ note: This analysis is based on the authors’ review of roll-call votes through April 10, 2017. This information is available on the Library of Congress website at Congress.gov. Counted roll-call votes include anti-environment measures that passed in either chamber and pro-environment measures that failed in either chamber. To download a list of anti-environmental congressional votes in 2017, click here.