In environmental law circles, we often talk about gridlock. Laments about the inability of Congress to pass new environmental laws, or make significant improvements to existing ones, are common. And we often look to 1990, when Congress passed major Clean Air Act Amendments and the Oil Pollution Act, as the end of environmental law’s era of legislative progress.
But there’s one important American environmental law that didn’t stop evolving in 1990. In 1996, at the height of Bill Clinton’s battles with Newt Gingrich and his insurgent conservative majority, Congress passed amendments designed to turn the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act into a genuine environmental law. Initially, the new protections didn’t work particularly well, but in January 2007—before Democrats took back control of Congress—President George W. Bush signed into law a second set of amendments (Representative Richard Pombo—no environmental luminary, to say the least—was a sponsor). These amendments were unequivocally protective; their core provisions were designed to end overfishing, and to do so quickly. And there’s growing evidence that they’re working.
How did this happen? I’d love to read an article that delves into the legislative history of these amendments, and that explains how fishery law managed to become more protective in what seem like the most unlikely of times. Perhaps that story might hold lessons for other fronts where environmental legislation really is stalled. Or perhaps fisheries law is just an outlier, a unique, strange area where the usual political rules don’t apply. But either way, I suspect there’s a good story here, just waiting to be told. And to the best of my knowledge, no one has told it yet.
So if you’re an environmental law student or a graduate student looking for a good (if ambitious) research project, I think this might be a great idea. And I—and hopefully many other people—would be very interested to see what you find.