In tapping Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, President-elect Donald Trump has selected the most conservative nominee for this post in a generation. Pruitt is an outspoken critic of the EPA who led legal challenges against some of the agency’s recent initiatives, including efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and to define which streams and wetlands are subject to federal regulation.
The last time the EPA was led by such a deep skeptic of its core mission was under Ronald Reagan’s first EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch (later Anne Burford). Like Pruitt, Gorsuch was a Western state officeholder committed to easing enforcement of environmental laws. Under her leadership, the agency’s budget was cut by 22 percent and the number of cases filed against polluters declined. Gorsuch didn’t survive long, though. Riddled with controversy and embroiled in an interbranch standoff, her reign at the EPA lasted less than two years. She resigned in 1983 after Congress cited her for contempt in a bipartisan vote.
By all appearances, Pruitt is just as eager as Gorsuch was to reduce the EPA’s regulatory efforts. But it is unlikely he will suffer a similar fate because of a crucial change since the 1980s. The strong consensus on environmental protection that once existed between Democrats and Republicans has yielded to the inexorable tide of partisan polarization.
Recent decades have seen a growing divide between Democratic and Republican voters on the environment, as with so many other issues. But polarization on the environment has been more dramatic than for any other issue, as we show in work to be published next year in the Annual Review of Political Science.
In 1988, Democrats and Republicans surveyed by the American National Election Studies were nearly equally supportive of federal spending on “improving and protecting the environment.” Partisan differences in environmental spending at that time were smaller even than differences on relatively uncontroversial issues like Social Security and schools.
But over the next 20 years, the environment became the most polarized issue in these data. By 2012 the gap between Democrats and Republicans on the environment dwarfed partisan divides over spending on issues such as poverty, child care and defense. In 2012, 56 percent of Democrats favored increasing environmental spending; only 6 percent wanted a spending cut. (All others said they were fine with the budgetary status quo.) But among Republicans, 34 percent wanted cuts and only 21 percent wanted increased spending.
The partisan divide on the environment has grown among political elites as well, as political scientists have documented using roll call votes in Congress as scored by the environmental advocacy group League of Conservation Voters (LCV). Taking 1983 — the year of Gorsuch’s resignation — as an example, Democratic senators earned an average LCV score of 65 (out of 100); Republican senators averaged a 31. This was, of course, a substantial gap. But in 2015, Democratic senators earned an average score of 92 while Republicans averaged just 5 — about as big a chasm between the two parties as possible.
When Congress charged Gorsuch for contempt, it was both an assertion of authority in overseeing the executive branch and a pushback against Reagan’s efforts to weaken environmental enforcement. Now, in a period of unified Republican control of Congress and the presidency, an interbranch standoff is unlikely. And with dwindling support from Republican voters for the environment, it’s hard to imagine GOP officeholders joining a backlash against Pruitt, no matter how boldly he acts to weaken environmental protection.
Patrick J. Egan (@Patrick_J_Egan) is an associate professor of politics and public policy at NYU. He specializes in public opinion, political institutions and their relationship in American politics. Megan Mullin (@mullinmeg) is associate professor of environmental politics and political science at Duke University. She studies how American political institutions and behavior contribute to environmental outcomes.