How to Lose Every Major Environmental Law

Last week, the uproar over threats to Social Security and Medicare overshadowed similar threats from the same proposal to every major national environmental protection law.

Senator Rick Scott of Florida has made something of a name for himself as chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. Ironically, it’s an unpopular name with many of his fellow Congressional Republicans. That’s because he’s been willing to say out loud some of the most unpopular policy positions that his party colleagues would prefer to leave unspoken.

In particular, it’s Scott’s much-publicized plan to “sunset” (repeal) every federal law not reauthorized by Congress every five years that has caused such political heartburn. In its original form, that plan included the nation’s most broadly relied upon retirement programs, Social Security and Medicare. (Over 70 million Americans receive Social Security benefits and 64 million are covered by Medicare.)

Congressional Democrats have been pointing to this threat to the health and lives of the majority of American retirees since Scott announced it. At his annual State of the Union address this month, President Joe Biden highlighted that threat, to the great political discomfort of Congressional Republicans. As a result, Senator Scott with poor grace and much revisionist griping amended his plan in order to specifically exclude Social Security and Medicare. 

Environmental Protections Still at Risk

Even under Scott’s amended plan, however, our nation’s most fundamental environmental protection programs would be left under the gun of a rolling five-year expiration date. That includes the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Wilderness Act, and more.

As we’ve seen since the founding of our republic, the gears of major national policy advances grind over decades, not five years. Today, administrative procedure requirements plus the inevitable lawsuits and counter-lawsuits mean that any major advance in dealing with an environmental threat (from the climate crisis to ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water) will take more than five years to get underway. A five-year rolling expiration date on our basic environmental laws would replace such efforts toward progress with a continuous desperate struggle just to hold the ground we already won in past decades. Forget about having time to deal with the urgent threats of newer crises.

Few Washington observers expect Scott’s radical sunsetting plan to be adopted, short of a complete national election sweep by like-minded politicians to take control of the US House, US Senate, and Presidency. However, the fact that it is being seriously debated as a platform position of one of the nation’s two major political party is a mark of just how dangerous that threat has become.

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