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How Republicans Became the Anti-Environmental Party

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The environmental historian Chris Sellers explores this issue for Earth Day. In the 1950s, many Republicans were among the founding environmentalists in Congress. And of course, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Congress was passing groundbreaking environmental laws by nearly unanimous votes (which is why it drives me crazy when Richard Nixon gets called a “liberal” for signing these laws). To say the least, things changed.

One strand of coalition-building emerged in the 1970s in the western states, where a so-called Sagebrush rebellion erupted among ranchers, miners, and other larger property owners upset over new environmental restrictions. Aspiring Republican politicians rode these issues into legislative takeovers in states like Colorado in 1976, by drawing support not just from rural but also from suburban voters.

Among the victors was a 34-old Republican lawyer named Anne Gorsuch representing Jefferson County, on Denver’s edge, who railed against regional planning as well as federal regulatory “overreach.” When reelected, Gorsuch attracted sufficient attention for former California governor Reagan to bring her in as advisor to his own conservative campaign for the presidency.

The other strand of early anti-environmentalism ran through the South, where traditional Democratic dominance was in flux. Democrats like then-Georgia governor Jimmy Carter embraced environmental causes. Some Republicans did as well. When college professor Newt Gingrich ran for Congress starting in 1972 in a West Georgia district extending into Atlanta’s suburbs, it made sense that he did so both as a Republican and an environmentalist.

But Gingrich kept losing until he noticed that rural lifelong Democrats rejecting his candidacy turned out repeatedly for a John Bircher Democrat running in a neighboring district who publicly questioned the constitutionality of both the EPA and national parks. Taking the cue, Gingrich won his first of many Congressional races in 1978 by dialing down his environmental rhetoric and cozying up to local industries that had run afoul of the new agencies and laws.

Riding these political tides to the White House, the early Reagan administration undertook a frontal assault on environmental agencies and regulation much like what we are now seeing. Gorsuch stepped into the EPA’s helm, hatching plans to cut its budget and personnel by half. Her Colorado colleague over at the Interior Department, James Watt, sought a similar devolution of control over federal lands; OSHA and FDA were also targeted.

But for these Republican anti-environmentalists, the power of the Presidency was not enough. A Democratic Congress, still bolstered by the party’s Southern bloc, stood in the way. Democratic committee chairs geared up for Congressional hearings that spotlighted the ensuing consequences and corruption at agencies under fire. The hue and cry then raised, and courtroom battles the Administration then lost, turned out to be much more than it had bargained for. Within two years, Gorsuch and Watt had resigned and restoration of federal environmental agencies was underway. A seminal Supreme Court decision in 1984, Chevron, Inc. vs NRDC, required judicial deference to environmental and other agencies’ interpretation of statutes, confirming their authority to regulate.

As moderate Republicans took over, federal environmental budgets and operations were restored, but the grounds were also being laid for a next war on the environmental state. The Heritage Foundation, established in the 1970s, enjoyed a heyday as an idea factory for tugging the administration to the right, and new think tanks established in the mid-1980s like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy came to nourish a special hostility toward the climate issue. In the South, as well, enterprising Republicans such as Gingrich successfully moved to convert white Democratic voters to their party.

Newt and Neil “My first act as Supreme Court justice is killing a disabled black man” Gorsuch’s mom. What a gallery of rogues.

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