It may come as little surprise to anyone who has ever rushed a tax return to the post office before midnight April 15, but a new study on environmental regulation has concluded that deadlines work.
The study, conducted by two Washington research organizations under contract to the Environmental Protection Agency, was aimed at finding out whether statutory deadlines in environmental laws are an effective way to speed progress or an unreasonable impediment to the agency's work.
The conclusion, according to a draft of the survey results, is that "statutory deadlines generally speed action by EPA, states and industry." In an analysis of key agency actions in the past 15 years, the researchers also found that court-ordered deadlines were even more effective than statutory ones and that tighter deadlines had a better chance of being met than more lenient ones.
The survey was undertaken by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the Environmental Law Institute at the request of then-EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus, who frequently argued that statutory deadlines were unnecessary and counterproductive.
By inserting unrealistic deadlines into the law, Ruckelshaus contended, Congress "undermines confidence in EPA managers . . . to the detriment of a public sense of confidence in government."
According to the survey results, however, Ruckelshaus is in a distinct minority, even among former EPA administrators.
"From an intellectual point of view, deadlines are crappy legislation; from a real-world point of view, they are necessary," said his immediate predecessor, Anne M. Burford.
Douglas Costle, who headed the EPA during the Carter administration, told the researchers that "regardless of their impact on quality, deadlines are essential . . . . Some of the best work done by EPA has been under extraordinary deadline pressures."
The survey has not been publicly released, but its conclusions are likely to get a full airing on Capitol Hill today as the House Energy and Commerce Committee considers whether to add mandatory deadlines to the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup law.
Congress has been peppering environmental laws with deadlines since the Clean Air Act of 1970, with mixed results.
The EPA is now subject to more than 280 deadline provisions in 15 laws, according to the study, and has actually met only 14 percent of them.
The agency complied late with 41 percent of the provisions, it said. Of the remainder, 27 percent have yet to be fulfilled, 2 percent were either deleted or extended, and the agency has lost track of the rest.
That doesn't count court-ordered deadlines, deadlines that involve the administrative review process or more than 60 new deadlines that were included in last year's rewrite of toxic-waste disposal legislation.
But the researchers, who interviewed more than 100 EPA and other government officials, industry representatives and environmentalists, said many considered deadlines a good way to force action -- even if the deadline is missed in the process