Government Regulation is Necessary, but it has to be SmartRoundup
tags: 1970s, Jimmy Carter, regulation, Administrative State
Paul Sabin is a history professor at Yale University. He is the author of Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.
With his new executive order, “Putting the Public First,” President Biden joins other recent Democratic presidents who have embraced government reform as a strategy for building trust in active government. The effort dates back at least to the 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter sought to balance protecting consumers, workers and the environment with responding to criticism about the costs and impact of federal regulation and bureaucracy.
These two aspects of 1970s liberalism — taking government action to solve public problems while acknowledging the need to improve government itself — came into particular focus one December morning in 1980, at the close of Carter’s presidency. That’s when he signed into law two strikingly different bills: the Superfund hazardous-waste law and the Paperwork Reduction Act.
Superfund strengthened the hand of federal environmental regulators by creating a new legal and funding mechanism to clean up the nation’s hazardous waste sites. The Paperwork Reduction Act pointed in the opposite direction, by eliminating “unnecessary Federal regulations” and providing a way to “regulate the regulators,” Carter explained.
On the surface, the December 1980 double bill-signing neatly divided two historical eras. Superfund represented the last gasp of 1970s environmentalism, while paperwork reduction heralded the conservative ascendancy of newly elected Ronald Reagan.
But Carter and his advisers had paired the bills with a purpose, and Carter enthusiastically signed both measures. Carter did not see the two pieces of legislation as a forced choice between starkly different paths. To him, the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Superfund bill represented two equally important and necessary developments of the 1970s that needed to be combined: the legitimate need for government to protect health, safety and the environment, and the vital importance of government effectiveness and accountability. Our failure to embrace the challenge to do both has paralyzed environmental policymaking and federal regulation ever since.
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