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.

The Superfund law and the Paperwork Reduction Act came at the end of a decade of regulatory expansion. Prodded by new consumer and environmental movements, Congress had passed a slew of major environmental laws, addressing air and water pollution, toxic chemicals, oil pollution, endangered species, forest and marine management, and energy efficiency. Federal agencies, including the new Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, sprang into action to write and enforce new rules and regulations.

Superfund turned out to be a last major building block in this federal environmental regulatory state. The law sought to address the problem of hazardous waste sites, including former industrial locations; poorly managed landfills, such as the Valley of the Drums and Love Canal; and even contaminated federal facilities, such as the Hunter’s Point Shipyard in San Francisco. Since prior owners frequently abandoned these properties to evade costly cleanups, Superfund established a new tax on chemical and petroleum products, and a legal mechanism for pursuing cost recovery from “potentially responsible parties.”

Yet even as the government expanded its regulatory reach in the 1960s and ’70s, business leaders, academic economists and policymakers worried about the potential costs of these regulations — including money, of course, but also in terms of time and other organizational resources. Paperwork and other steps taken to satisfy regulations were not free goods, these critics argued. While pursuing improvements in public welfare, government could unwittingly, or, as more recent commentators have noted, even intentionally, burden Americans with bureaucracy and ill-conceived rules that raised prices, stifled innovation, impeded access to services and had other costs.

Even some who supported new regulations in the late 1970s believed the government needed to keep track of and manage the costs that it imposed on the American people.

Carter himself felt strongly about both impulses. He called for government action to protect the environment and public health, but he also sought to make regulation less burdensome and costly. Both causes were personal passions and their integration lay at the heart of his political program.

Carter had spent his childhood roaming the woods and fields in rural Georgia. “Everyone who knows me,” he said while signing the Superfund bill, “understands that one of my greatest pleasures has been to strengthen the protection of our environment.” As president, Carter pressed for energy conservation and renewable energy, fought wasteful and destructive hydroelectric dams, expanded protections of public lands and, in his final days in office, backed Superfund’s new regulatory framework to clean up the nation’s hazardous waste sites.

But government efficiency also animated the president. With a background in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program, Carter was used to calculating and balancing risks and benefits for strategic purposes. As governor of Georgia, he worked to rationalize state government, abolishing and consolidating hundreds of state agencies.

In the closing days of his presidency, Carter characterized the Paperwork Reduction Act as a defining legacy. He spoke fondly of the utterly bureaucratic cause of information management and regulatory reform. One of the “high points of my presidency,” Carter recalled, was a day in 1978 when more than 900 minor and outdated safety and health regulations “were stricken from the books.” The paperwork law, Carter said at the 1980 signing ceremony, was “embedding my own philosophy … into the laws of our Nation.”

In short, Carter believed the federal government needed to strive for continuous improvement and efficiency while also acting to better people’s lives.

And yet Carter’s political message proved too subtle and ineffective for the nation’s increasing partisanship around the role of government. Rather than embrace the tension between government action and reform, advocates chose sides, as if there could be only one or the other. Critics from the left denounced cost analysis as simply a “power play by corporations.” Carter advisers who advocated attention to regulatory costs, they said, were “economic gunslingers” who wanted to “trade lives for dollars.”

On the other side, anti-regulatory ideologues such as Rep. David Stockman (R-Mich.), writing just days after the double bill-signing, called for a “regulatory ventilation” that would block or reverse environmental protections. Stockman, whom Reagan appointed to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), hyperbolically warned that new government regulations would paralyze the American economy. Spurring on these politicians were increasingly politically organized and active businesses. Business lobbyists, according to a Washington Post article in February 1981, were drawn to the Reagan administration “like a stocked candy store.” Businesses had a “shopping list of regulations” that they wanted to eliminate, and some of the business interests were “reaching in with both hands.”

Lost in this increasingly heated debate was the paired idea that government regulation was urgent and necessary, and it also needed to be done efficiently and effectively.

A few months after the December 1980 signing ceremony, with Carter out of office and Reagan in power, liberal environmentalists and conservative anti-regulatory activists began a pitched political battle that pitted Superfund and OMB’s control over federal regulation against one another. The Reagan administration zealously used new powers created by the Paperwork Reduction Act and a new White House executive order on federal regulation to try to sharply curtail environmental, health and safety regulations.

Congressional liberals and the White House specifically fought over the implementation of Superfund. Reagan’s environmental agency seemed more interested in protecting corporate polluters than implementing the new hazardous-waste law. Rita Lavelle, the EPA assistant administrator responsible for overseeing and implementing the new Superfund program, had worked previously for the Continental Chemical Corporation and Aerojet, a California defense contractor subject to the new law. Following a tumultuous congressional investigation of the environmental agency’s Superfund policies, Lavelle was convicted of perjury for lying to Congress. The EPA administrator, Anne Gorsuch (mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch), resigned.

Pushed into a defensive crouch to defend hard-won legislative gains of the 1970s, it was easy for many liberals to lose touch with the need to fight to improve government efficiency and accountability too. (Superfund itself, ironically, would become a paperwork-generating machine, triggering epic lawsuits over financial responsibility and yielding only limited progress cleaning up contaminated sites.)

Since Reagan’s election in 1980, a stalemate has largely ensued on national environmental regulation. Congress has passed only a small number of significant environmental laws, and, in recent years, the EPA has become a political punching bag, derided for supposed regulatory excess, and greatly hampered in its efforts to respond to the climate crisis.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Indeed, for government to work well and garner public support, it can’t be. Regulation and bureaucratic reform need to be recognized as two legitimate goals, a creative tension whereby imperfect government can strive to protect crucial public interests.