Mr. President: We’ve Seen This Act Before

By David Wiggins, Group Executive Committee Member

A new president, elected without a majority of the popular vote, takes office wrongly assuming that he has a popular mandate to slash the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, and gut the country’s environmental regulations in the name of economic growth. He promptly appoints an ideological lawyer to run the EPA, possibly to run it into the ground. Sound like what’s happening right now?


Sadly it does, but it’s also happened before, and we survived. Thirty-six years ago, Ronald Reagan appointed as his EPA Administrator a state legislator named Anne Gorsuch (coincidentally the mother of President Trump’s current Supreme Court nominee). Gorsuch approached the job with the impassioned belief that the government was too big, taxes were too high, and regulations were too tight for American industry to grow.[1]

Gorsuch slashed the EPA’s budget for two years, cutting spending by 22% and forcing sharp reductions in the agency’s enforcement actions against air and water polluters around the country.[2] For her senior staff, she hired people who had formerly worked in the very industries that they were charged with regulating. Morale among the agency’s career staff nosedived.[3]

In 1982 Gorsuch privately promised a New Mexico oil refinery that the EPA would not enforce its lead additive limits against it.[4] She accelerated EPA approval of the use of dangerous pesticides, and relaxed enforcement of various provisions of the Clean Air Act.[5]

This regulatory mayhem continued until 1983, when Congress cited Gorsuch for contempt, based on her refusal to produce records of the EPA’s use of toxic waste cleanup funds. Gorsuch soon resigned.[6] After her departure, the EPA gradually reassumed its role as the nation’s principal environmental watchdog, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

That was then. Now, amid rumors of budget cuts and regulatory rollbacks at the EPA, President Trump has appointed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the agency. Pruitt’s own website calls him “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” and he has repeatedly filed lawsuits to invalidate EPA regulations limiting methane emissions by the oil and gas industry.[7]

Pruitt’s hostility toward sensible environmental regulation appears to have spread into the Congress, and a bill has now been introduced to simply abolish the EPA.[8] Unlike in 1981, the opposition party controls neither Congressional chamber, and its ability to block the passage of destructive legislation currently hangs by the thread of a Senatorial filibuster.

So what, then, shall we do? What we did 36 years ago: Keep our eyes open and focused on the actions of this administration and the president, whose shocking indifference to urgent environmental concerns is outweighed only by his seeming ignorance of the possible consequences.

We must shout when the administration violates existing environmental statutes and regulations, or proposes to repeal them. Shout to our representatives in Congress. Shout to state and local leaders and regulators. Shout to the newspapers and shout across the Internet.

And we must be ready to support conservation organizations like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, and others, in the court battles that will come. Some of their efforts will succeed, others will fail, but we must be ready to fight.

Eventually, sanity will return. It did before, and it will again, perhaps a lot faster than we might think.

[1] General information about Gorsuch can be found at









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