By David Switzer (University of Missouri)
Early on in the Trump administration, it was clear that the role of the federal government in environmental protection would be lessened, with then Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, suggesting that the Trump administration would focus on “cooperative federalism,” emphasizing the role of states in environmental regulation. The developments at the federal level have led scholars and journalists alike to question how this prioritization of state administration in environmental policy will impact implementation. Indeed, the major environmental statutes passed in the 1960s and 1970s created a system in which responsibility for implementation fell jointly to the federal and state governments. While the national EPA establishes environmental quality standards and provides oversight, state governments can choose to take over responsibility for enforcement and can set their own regulations above the EPA’s minimum requirements. A great deal of research in political science has investigated how state level politics influence implementation of environmental policy, and the Trump administration is likely to produce renewed interest in the topic. Implementation does not end with the federal and state governments, however, and comparatively little attention has been paid to the robust part local governments play in implementation.
Local governments own and operate many of the entities regulated by the major environmental laws in the United States, including the vast majority of utilities regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and treatment plants regulated under the Clean Water Act, as well as numerous landfills regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and a variety of facilities regulated under the Clean Air Act. This means that in many situations, it is ultimately the responsibility of local governments to ensure that citizens are protected from pollution. While the federal and state governments are responsible for enforcing environmental regulations, it is often local governments who must comply with those regulations. The importance of local governments in environmental protection is made clear by the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a local government decision (under the direction of a state appointed emergency manager) to change the primary drinking water source from the Detroit Water System to the Flint River led to the leaching of lead into the water supply. While policy implementation of federal environmental policy in the United States formalizes a system of two level cooperative federalism, scholars have too often ignored the fact that implementation involves three levels of government.
In my article, I investigate the role of local governments in environmental policy implementation, specifically looking at how citizen political preferences influence compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The research on environmental policy implementation at the federal and state level has long found that political variables have significant impacts on how stringently environmental law is enforced, and citizen preferences have been found to influence implementation at the state level. The primary question of this article is whether local government compliance with environmental law is similarly determined by the political preferences of the citizens they serve.
I argue that the political incentives facing local governments mean that those serving more liberal and Democrat leaning citizens will comply with environmental law at higher rates than those serving conservative and Republican leaning citizens. In general, there is strong evidence that more liberal and Democratic leaning individuals are more concerned with environmental protection and may be more aware of pollution issues. This means that cities that serve more liberal citizens may face greater political backlash for poor implementation. Additionally, cities that serve more conservative constituencies may struggle to raise the revenue necessary from environmental compliance. To be clear, the argument here is not that conservatives do not care about environmental protection, but rather that the political incentives facing local governments mean those that serve more liberal citizens are incentivized to comply at higher rates.
Testing this possibility on municipal water utility compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, I found that municipalities serving areas with a higher Obama share of the major party vote in the 2008 presidential election committed far fewer violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act from 2009 to 2013, even after controlling for a number of demographic, institutional, and utility characteristics. This means that much like federal and state environmental policy implementation is dependent on political variables, local compliance with federal law is determined by local politics. Specifically, citizen partisanship at the local level in part determines municipal compliance with federal law meant to protect citizens from harmful contaminants in their drinking water.
While the Trump administration will likely prompt scholars to increase their attention on state implementation of federal environmental policy, these results, coupled with the human health disaster in Flint, should encourage those interested in urban politics and environmental policy to explore the ways in which local governments may vary in their compliance with environmental law. It is time to fully embrace that there are three, not two, levels of government involved in the implementation of many of the federal environmental statutes in the United States, and look deeper into the role played by local governments in shielding citizens from pollution.
David Switzer is an assistant professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. His research lies at the intersection of political science, public policy, and public administration, focusing on how political, administrative, and community characteristics influence environmental policy development and implementation at the local level.