EPA’s Regulatory Turnaround an Example of Compassionate Conservatism in Action, by Syd Gernstein

Just the thought of new environmental regulations can make people groan. Nobody wants to breathe dirty air or drink toxic water, but government policies to protect the planet can be unnecessarily expensive – especially for those who can least afford it.

Environmental regulations need not ravage our pocketbooks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not always understand this notion, but the Bush Administration does. This is especially fortunate for poor Americans who don’t have much money to spare (and who disproportionately are minorities).

During the Clinton Administration, EPA officials proposed new regulations governing storm water runoff that characterized the agency’s inability to understand the budgetary restraints of the American people. The EPA’s proposal to increase existing standards regarding post-storm runoff of everything from oil and pesticides to dog feces would require new construction projects to include things such as permanent ponds.1 Not only would this raise costs in the short term, but it would also require permanent maintenance. These measures would reportedly reduce all mud – toxic or not – in storm water drains by 80 percent, but they certainly would reduce the economic independence of hundreds of thousands of hard-working Americans.

It’s not clear the one-size-fits-all style the EPA advocated at the time would lead to cleaner water. Common sense dictates that towns in the Arizona desert face different runoff challenges than New York City suburbs. Uniform regulations fail to account for such subtleties.

Additionally, and most important to the average American, is that the old EPA leadership’s proposed mud policy would add $3,500 to the price of a new home.2 This $3,500 increase could force more than one million lower-income Americans completely out of the housing market.3 In particular, it would stem the rising tide of black homeownership, which recently rose to a record 6.1 million black households owning their own homes.4

It would not likely be any better for renters since landlords would likely pass on regulatory costs through rent increases.

These economic concerns led the Small Business Administration, Office of Management and Budget, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Transportation and the White House Council of Economic Advisers to all criticize the EPA’s proposed storm water runoff regulation. HUD Assistant Secretary John C. Weicher said, “The effect on the rental market is likely to make it harder to achieve the national housing goal of a decent home for all families, and the effect on single-family homes is likely to make it harder for young families to buy their first homes.”5

By the way, we already pay for storm water regulations. All existing regulations factor into new home prices to the tune of approximately $5,000. The National Association of Home Builders estimates the regulatory costs of building a house in three major metropolitan areas – Cincinnati, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Santa Fe, New Mexico – tripled between 1974 and 1994.6 A main factor driving housing cost increases includes environment-related regulations such as sewer and water fees and storm water runoff controls.

Despite already charging consumers thousands of dollars for storm water regulations, the EPA wanted to impose further restrictions that would yield, in the words of Small Business Administration Chief Counsel for Advocacy Thomas M. Sullivan, “questionable water quality benefits.”7

These concerns led the Bush Administration to set aside plans to implement these burdensome storm water runoff regulations. Current EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman instead proposed a new policy that relies on states, local governments and the contractors themselves – those most familiar with their neighborhoods – to determine their own polices. By allowing those who know how to keep individual stormwater drains clean, the Whitman EPA has found a less costly, less burdensome and more effective plan.8

This compromise is an embodiment of “compassionate conservatism” the Bush touted while campaigning for the White House. It is a solution that protects the environment without ravaging the pocketbooks of hard-working families.

The Bush White House deserves praise for listening to local concerns and, at least in this instance, not imposing needless regulations that drive Americans, especially the poor and minorities, away from achieving the American Dream of homeownership.

Syd Gerntein is a research associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. 

1 “Bush Administration Lets Construction Companies Off the Hook for Protecting Environment,” National Resources Defense Council, Washington, DC, May 24, 2002, downloaded from http://www.nrdc.org/bushrecord/water_pollution.asp#589 on July 1, 2002.

2 Wes Vernon, “How White House Kept EPA From Socking Your Neighborhood,” Newsmax.com, May 25, 2002, downloaded from http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2002/5/24/171034.shtml on July 1, 2002.

3 Wes Vernon, “Bush Regulators Save Home Buyers from $3,500 Penalty,” Newsmax.com, May 24, 2002, downloaded from http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2002/5/23/163731.shtml on July 1, 2002.

4 David Almasi, “Giving With One Hand, Taking Away with the Other: Competing Government Policies Both Promote and Deny Homeownership Opportunities for Minorities,” New Visions Commentary, Project 21, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, DC, April 2002, available at http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21NVAlmasiSprawl402.html.

5 Vernon, “How White House Kept EPA From Socking Your Neighborhood”

6 Angela Antonelli, “Regulation: Demanding Accountability and Common Sense,” Issues ’98: The Candidate’s Briefing Book, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC, downloaded from http://www.heritage.org/ISSUES/98/chap3.html on July 1, 2002.

7 Vernon, “How White House Kept EPA From Socking Your Neighborhood”

8 Brian Johnson, “Contractors Upset by EPA’s Proposed Runoff Regulations,” Finance and Commerce, August 28, 2001, downloaded from http://www.finance-commerce.com/recent_articles/010828a.htm on July 3, 2002.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.