|Courtesy of Archiving Early America|
A database of U.S. environmental and related laws now includes over 700 statutes ranging in date from 1789 (The Northwest Ordinance Act, signed by George Washington) to 2011. The database was developed in Microsoft EXCEL(TM). The new classification system facilitates identification of historical trends. Supplementary tables include the histories of cabinet departments, bureaus, and agencies.
Study of environmental law and policy history aided by the database reveals cyclic trends in U.S. lawmaking and government performance. Early laws under the first six presidents delegated operational policymaking to federal officials or agencies, whose leaders as well as employees were generally appointed on the basis of competence.
The spoils system initiated by Andrew Jackson (1829-37) resulted in deterioration in government functions, reaching a peak in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77). Lack of trust in government officials and agencies led to extreme micromanagement in Congressional lawmaking.
Federal agencies gained public respect as a result of the reform movement of the late 19th Century. Congress responded by delegating authority for formulating operating policy to agencies. Administrative laws rarely exceeded 20 pages in length.
This system broke down after WWII as a consequence of turbulent events in the 1960s. Pathbreaking environmental laws in 1970s transferred leadership for detailed regulatory policy from professional agencies to Congress, resulting in dramatic increase in the length and complexity of laws. The new system initially made rapid progress in curbing pollution, but it also created a rift in U.S. society between environmentalists and industry. The rift widened into partisan political polarization in the first Reagan administration (1981-85). This has led to Congressional gridlock and inability to make even minor amendments to laws.