DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED…OR PAST

Posted on November 17, 2014 by Jeff Thaler

November 1967: The Moody Blues release their second album, Days of Future Passed, said to be an influential work of the countercultural, psychedelic era. May 2014: Wolverine goes back in time to rally the X-Men against the Sentinels in Days of Future Past. In between: Ed Muskie and Leon Billings roamed the Earth, particularly the U.S. Senate, and modern-day environmental law was born and thrives.

2014 also is the centennial of the birth of Muskie in the old mill town of Rumford, Maine. On November 15, almost exactly 47 years after release of Future Passed, Harvard Law Professor Richard Lazarus and Leon Billings, Senator Muskie’s former chief of staff, spoke on a panel looking back and to the future of laws like the Clean Air and Water Acts that were unanimously passed by the Senate through the guidance of Muskie and Billings.

Billings spoke of how what Muskie was able to shepherd through Congress and into law involved concepts still pervasive and taken for granted today—such as private attorneys general, nondegradation, open decision-making, the public’s right to breathe healthy air and removal of the right to pollute. He described Muskie’s insistence of and ability to achieve bipartisanship, with allies for the CAA and CWA efforts including such Senators as Baker, Eagleton, Cooper, Bayh, Boggs and Dole, as well as the exhaustive efforts to fully vet and document the need for legislation. For example, for the CWA the Senate Committee held 33 days of hearings with 1721 witnesses, 470 statements and 6,400 pages of testimony, followed by 45 sub-or-full-Committee markup sessions and 39 Conference meetings. 

Billings then focused on two concepts that he said demonstrate Muskie’s ability over 40 years ago to look to the future. The first, “waters of the Unites States” grew out of the Senator’s knowledge of the 1899 Refuse Act; he successfully convinced his colleagues that the Act supported a broad view of “waters of the US” to include, for example, wetlands. Since then, the Supreme Court has gone “at least as far as we had expected, and more broadly than we could have hoped”, said Billings.

The second concept is that of climate change and the Clean Air Act. Billings was very clear: Section 111(d) was no accident, is not being misinterpreted, and Muskie intended there to be a legislative basis for then-unknown or undefined pollution problems like CO2, what Billings now calls the “epitome of the precautionary principle”.  The phrase “selected air pollution agents” almost never made it out of the House-Senate Conference in December 1970, but a compromise was struck so late at night it never made it into the Conference reports. And while no one then envisioned CO2 and climate change, Billings said that if Muskie were alive when the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v EPA that CO2 is a pollutant, he would have said, “Why do you think I put that provision in there in the first place?”

Richard Lazarus then spoke of Senator Muskie’s enduring legacy in the courts as the font of legislative intent underlying many environmental laws, including frequent references to Muskie in court opinions and during oral arguments at the Supreme Court. He also demonstrated that while President Nixon did sign the bills authored by Muskie and had the label of being an environmental President, in fact he was largely using the issue for a short time as a defensive measure to cut off Muskie’s prospects as a potential 1972 Presidential candidate. Richard then showed slides of handwritten notes made by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman of three discussions with the President: in February 1971, even when they thought environmental protection “has to be done”, at the same time they thought it “is not worth a damn”; in June “should take on environment—it’s not a sacred cow”;  and by July 1971 they wanted to put the “brakes on pollution bills…when we can without getting caught”, and to “reexamine all pollution bills in terms of current economic impact”.

Richard also discussed the current EPA rulemaking under 111, especially referencing the term “best system of emission reduction”; EPA’s June 2014 legal memorandum in support of its rulemaking proposal used Senator Muskie’s own words concerning “system” as encompassing the potential for emission reductions to occur outside the fence, and to include more than just controls. He said that for EPA, Muskie is its “Mr. Clean”.

During Q&A, both panelists discussed the partisanship of the past 10-20 years contrasted with during Muskie’s era. Billings mentioned how during Muskie’s opening presentation of the Clean Air Act on the Senate floor, the presiding officer was Senator Barry Goldwater, who sent down a note (now lost to history) saying, “Ed, that is the finest speech I think I have ever heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Turning to NEPA, the concept of an” environmental impact statement” developed through a personal compromise Muskie struck with Senator Jackson.

Afterwards I asked Billings, “If Ed Muskie and you were in the Senate now, what would you be doing?” He said, “If we were the majority party, holding a lot of oversight hearings to bring in all the scientists and evidence; if the minority party, writing speeches.”

And that is how the Past (or Days Passed) in Environmental Law still have major force in today’s many controversies. Oh, by the way: The Moody Blues recently released a new box set, “Timeless Flight”, and are still touring. Long live rock and environmental laws!