The Donora Smog along with other tragic pollution-related deaths in London and New York led to the passage of the 1955 Air Pollution Control Act. Although this act did little to prevent air pollution, the act served as the stage for Congress to pass the first federal standard for air quality, championed by Edmund S. Muskie, who has been heralded as the “father of modern environmental movement” and “most important environmental leader.” His enduring legacy lies in shaping environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, which have protected public health and life for more than fifty years.
These laws have had a stunning positive impact on the nation’s natural environment. It takes little imagination to speculate what our national landscape would now look like if the economic growth over the past five decades had not been accompanied by the environmental protections provided by these laws. All one has to do is look at the other parts of the world which has been affected by environmental devastation, such as in parts of eastern Europe and Asia. While these areas experienced similar dramatic economic growth and industrialization, they did not have the comparable environmental protection safeguards. Muskie’s talent, passion, and commitment to protecting the environment was evident in the laws he championed and its impact on public health and welfare even to this day.
Edmund Muskie grew up in Rumford, Maine and from an early age, he observed the impact of pollution on the Androscoggin River and the air from nearby paper mill smokestacks. In his 1954 gubernatorial campaign, his environmental platform argued for the creation of anti-pollution legislation. As governor, he called for legislation to address water pollution and began to experience the complexity of the problem. Muskie had little opportunity to act on his environmental interest until April 1963 when he became the chairman of the created Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution. Muskie commissioned comprehensive staff reports on water and air pollution. Early on, Muskie saw pollution as interfering with economic development as well as public health. By 1963, Muskie was holding six days of hearings on water pollution and three days of hearings on air pollution, which culminated in the Senate passing the legislation in both areas that year. The work of America’s greatest environmental legislative leader required mastery of every aspect of the subject—technical, political, strategical, constitutional.
From his first term, Muskie was immersed in issues relating to federalism and intergovernmental matters, and by the mid-1960s, if not before, he was recognized by close Congressional observers as one of the Senate’s most capable and constructive members. Later, after Vietnam and Watergate, Muskie became involved in issues relating to separation of powers. As the first Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Muskie led Congress to exercise its spending power in a more coherent fashion. He managed the War Powers Resolution and became very involved in foreign policy even before leaving the Senate to serve as Secretary of State. Throughout various roles in government, Muskie never relinquished his environmental role, yet that was far from the only area in which he led—he continued to champion environmental protection in the context of his broader role as a Senator.
Muskie’s strong commitment to serving the public interest included protecting the health and welfare of individuals. But, he never discounted the benefits of growing economy. In fact, he believed that economic growth and protecting the environment do not have to be at odds with each other. “An economic growth policy which abandons environmental objectives would be a foolish course. The Nation must have clean growth,” he announced to the Senate in 1976. Furthermore, he noted that pollution imposed large economic costs that others tend not to be aware of. Muskie did not believe that economic gain justified poisoning human beings or degrading the planet. For Muskie’s sense of the public interest was anchored in firm ideas of right and wrong.
Muskie was guided by the rational consideration of data. Leon Billings notes that Muskie studied environmental issues and . At times Muskie had to operate without much scientific information but when data was available, he collected, studied, internalized, and acted upon it rather than ignoring the facts. Knowledge was a source of his influence and he used information to plan his arguments. His colleagues, including proponents and opponents, often deferred to him. They recognized that Muskie was full of integrity and an expert in environmental impacts of public health. Muskie did not cherry-pick or falsify facts to protect his ideological predispositions. But instead he digested and shared information in comprehensive fashion to reach supportable and sustainable conclusions. Rather than being a “position-taker”, which may have forged more efficient connection to election, Muskie legislated appropriate laws that required hard work at several stages: identifying a solution, reaching consensus, passing it through the Senate, and reaching agreement with the House.
Many legislators claim victory after a legislative accomplishment and move on to other pursuits, but that does not apply to Muskie. He recognized that legislating was an ongoing pursuit and there remains much more to do to and combat pollution. Muskie’s efforts of controlling air pollution did not end when a bill became law. Muskie saw the creation of the law as the beginning of oversight, in which he began to check enforcement and use the data collected from implementation to find ways to perfect the legislation. The legislative process required constant study of things that went wrong and can be improved. Muskie did not view failure of a law as mistake. Instead, he sought to study the deficiencies of legislative design that accounted for the failure and saw this failure as an opportunity to make a more effective and practical law. Muskie believed that it was his responsibility as a legislator to continue to search for ways to improve existing systems.
An extraordinary quality of Muskie was his ability to collaborate. Much of the success of the Clean Air Act was due to his leadership, leading the legislative process that produced them. As a legislator, he has been compared to a symphony conductor rather than the soloist. Muskie collected and included the best suggestions of his colleagues. He was more interested in constructing rather than accolading. So he shared credit amongst his colleagues to build consensus. For example, the Clean Air Act was composed of Howard Baker’s belief that technology could be harnessed to reduce air pollution. Tom Eagleton’s commitment to deadlines as a necessary ingredient of laws would deliver on promises and Muskie’s insistence that environmental law safeguard human health. Muskie also knew how to compromise to fuel legislative accomplishment. Muskie stood firm to his principles and knew when to walk away from negotiations to force concessions. While preserving the purity of his position, Muskie knew when to enact partial advances rather than lose. He was aware that legislation was a collaborative process, and , accommodation and consensus were its necessary ingredients.
Edmund Muskie’s strong commitment, integrity, and passion dedicated to improving the environment contributed to his success, a testament of which is the enduring nature of his legislations. Decades after enactment of the Clean Air Act, the basic legal architecture of this act and its amendments remains intact. Though members of Congress have attempted to dismantle the architecture, they have failed. Congress for decades has removed itself from environmental lawmaking and Muskie himself has departed from those legislative chambers. But his voice is still loud and present in the federal courts. His voice expressed in the arguments made by lawyers and in the judicial ruling themselves, extending to the US Supreme Court, stands the test of time.
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