Has it really been 36 years! It seems like I have been here before. In 1981, I was Assistant General Counsel with the Texas Department of Water Resources, a predecessor agency of the current Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Upon Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as the 40th President, I was appointed Regional Counsel of the Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas.
EPA was on the chopping block with proposals to drastically reduce its budget, positions, and programs. The agency lawyers were an endangered species, targeted for elimination. The agency was reorganized to do away with the Enforcement Division. The administration supported the transfer of the implementation and enforcement of the environmental statutes to the states. This was 1981 not 2017.
The early years of the new administration were filled with much anxiety based in part on proposed budgets that had no relationship to existing staffing. Were we to go through a reduction in force and fire attorneys and staff? Such a RIF was not necessary given the atmosphere and morale within the agency. In early 1983, during a Regional Counsels’ meeting, an informal headcount showed that through attrition there had been over a 30% reduction of attorneys in the regional offices since the inauguration.
The effort to dismantle and defang the agency was met by public outrage, and in the midst of the turmoil, Administrator Anne Gorsuch was cited for contempt of Congress. Shortly thereafter, there was change in the agency leadership with the return of Bill Ruckelshaus, whose helmsmanship righted the agency and successfully refocused the agency’s staff on its critical mission.
What did I learn from this experience? Quite simply, don’t overplay your hand. An election may give the President and a new administration a perceived mandate for change, but that mandate must be tempered with an appreciation of the overwhelming public support for the mission of the agency. As my good friend, mentor, and former Regional Administrator, Dick Whittington, would say: “we must be able to separate the public will from the public whim.”