The decade of the 1970s gave Americans many great things. Remember the Crying Indian ad? “People start pollution, people can stop it,” that PSA said. And, to a remarkable extent, we have.
Rivers that were once polluted enough to catch fire now run clean. “I never thought I would see in my lifetime, let alone in my career, such an amazing comeback of a river,” Steve Tuckerman, the Cuyahoga River specialist for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, told The New York Times in 2009. And yet we did it.
The 1970s also gave us Schoolhouse Rock, which explained how a bill becomes a law. In that telling, Congress would carefully consider a bill, pass it through both houses and send it to the president. If he signed it, the bill would enjoy status as a law. But that isn’t the case as much anymore.
Recent laws, including Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, are not laws in the traditional sense. Rather than clearly explain what conduct is banned, these laws instruct executive branch officials to take action. Under Obamacare, “there are more than 700 instances in which the Secretary is instructed that she ‘shall’ do something, and more than 200 cases in which she ‘may’ take some form of regulatory action if she chooses,” Philip Klein wrote in 2010. “On 139 occasions, the law mentions decisions that the ‘Secretary determines.’”
We’re a long way from “I’m just a bill.”
This sort of legislative dodge gives great power to unelected bureaucrats. And that brings us to another relic of the 1970s: the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA was launched as an independent agency in 1970, with the blessing of Congress and President Nixon. And indeed, there were plenty of environmental problems to be dealt with, although it’s arguable whether EPA was the proper venue. That’s because the agency often exercises the powers of all three branches of government.