How Environmental Policy Is Made--Part 4, Process

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A long process

Protecting the environment may seem like an important and somewhat straightforward thing. But nothing in politics is straightforward, and nothing is garunteed to be held important. The process of making environmental policy is a long and difficult path that often yeilds frustrating results. This, however, is the nature of democracy–even when issues are important, the process of politics always takes precedent. However, with the right knowledge and force at certain points of the process, we can and have made significant and important political inroads to help conserve our planet.

  1. Defining the Problem

Most likely if you are reading this article you already regard environmental policy as a significant issue. However, to be considered for governmental action, you must first have a clearly defined problem. It is not enough to simply say “we need to help endangered species!” Instead, the problem must be defined in terms of potential actions that can be taken. That is, the process of defining a problem includes identifying the specific area that needs to be addressed and potential solutions for that problem. To be considered later for agenda, these things have to be defined in terms of their expanse (national, local) and influence (business, neighborhoods, cities, etc). The early discussion on the topic will serve to set up the rest of the policy making, establishing the basic rhetoric used to promote the cause and identifying the key issues and points of emphasis.

For instance, the expanding development in Florida’s wetlands is destroying the habitats of the local wildlife, endangering a variety of species. In the 1990s, a lot of discussion went into why this was occurring and what could be done about it before any action could take place. After a while, the issue became adaquately identified and framed into a form that could make an argument for potential action. Things like establishing and expanding National Forests, restricting development, and placing bans on hunting were all discussed and defined so that they could be presented to players in the government.

Note that this part of policy formation is the one you have most control over; it is the one that takes place in the general culture, media, and everyday conversations. Grassroots efforts and environmental organizations are key to this defining process as are researchers, professionals, and various public activist leaders who specialize in environmental regulation.

  1. Agenda Formation

Once the problem has been defined it must be picked up by a governmental body. There are two general agendas occurring at any given time: the public agenda and the institutional agenda. The public agenda is the topics that are in public discussion, that may merit a governmental response. This is informal–it is the things people like you and me find important.

The institutional agenda is what is important for policy. This includes the problems that are up for active discussion within policymaking bodies. This could be things that local or national congresses are considering, that the president is recognizing (particularly with larger actions, such as cap-and-trade systems), or might even be a case taken to a court.

Naturally, a lot of the public agenda doesn’t make it into the institutional agenda. This is another key point that both grassroots and organized efforts make a huge difference: gathering together and making it clear that the issues you hold important need to be addressed will go a long way in getting your concerns from the public agenda to the institutional agenda. It is through such efforts that most environmental regulation comes to the attention of lawmakers, who might be too focused elsewhere (such on improving the economy) to address these issues without such pressure.

  1. Adopting the Policy

The actual implementation of policy can occur several different ways. It may occur through a presidential mandate or a court ruling, such as the important policy that allowed companies to patent genetic material (Diamond v. Chakrabarty). However, most significant environmental regulation has to go through Congress and come in the form of laws. This process is another beast in itself. Here are the basic steps:

1) Bill Introduction: any member of congress drafts a bill or a proposal for one and submits it in their own legislative body. For example, in 2009, a bill was introduced into Congress to propose a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions.

2) Committee: This is the longest and most involved step. Both houses of congress include several committees that are involved in environmental policy (see Part 3 of this series). These committees consist of various politicians whose districts, typically, have some particular interest in that given issue area. For instance, the Agricultural committees are mostly made up of midwesten Congressman. In committee, the Congressmen consult with professionals, write up, discuss, and edit the bill. Often times the bulk of this work occurs in even smaller groups (normally just a few people), the subcommittees. They get outside opinion and information through hearings, where groups and scientists will often testify to provide politicians with assistance. When you hear of Congress “working hard to refine a bill” it is normally in this stage of the process, where the refinement occurs.

3) Floor: Once a bill has been put together it is taken to the Floor of the House and Senate. In the Senate, unlimited time is allotted to discuss the bill while in House time is limited. The right to edit the bill is still largely in the hands of the committee who drafted it–often if a bill is not received well on the floor it will go through several iterations of committee and floor activity. Once it is ready, the bill is put up for a vote

4) President: If a bill wins a majority vote it will then go to the president, who has the option to veto. This immense power (it takes 2/3 majority to override a veto–since when can you get all 2/3 of Congress to agree?), shapes the whole process from the beginning–Congressmen must draft a bill that the president will approve otherwise their efforts are wasted.

If the bill makes it through all of these steps it becomes a law.

  1. Implementation

Once a policy has been put into place, it is how it is implemented that really makes the changes that were desired from the beginning. The process of implementation goes a long way in influencing the form that the policy takes. This normally doesn’t get as much attention by media and interest groups but it is just as important–if a law is not enforced as strongly or stronger than intended, for instance, the actual policy may differ drastically than what was envisioned by lawmakers. Often time subtle aspects of the implementation, such as the amount of funding or the organization given the responsibility, can have a large effect on the actual effect of the policy.

One poignent example of this is harmful waste regulations. The EPA is given the power and jurisdiction to implement these laws as they are passed. However, the number of EPA inspectors have fluctuated depending on the president. If a president wants to have less regulation he doesn’t necessarily have to change the laws, he can simply take actions to reduce the number of EPA inspectors, making it easier for companies to slip through the cracks. The inverse is also possible (and of course much more desirable).

This is important to keep in mind when considering a policy that is in discussion. It may be that a cap-and-trade system sounds good, but who will implement it? Will the president provide the force behind it to make it worthwhile? How much will the enforcement itself cost? These are issues that must be taken into account during discussion, prior to the actual implementation.

  1. Policy Evaluation

Once a policy is implemented efforts are then taken to look at the effects the policy had–did it do what it was supposed to? Should changes be made? Were there unexpected consequences? Have new issues rose that call for revision?

Reviews of policies can occur in an informal setting within the sphere of the public agenda. This is in your personal critique as well as the critique of the media.

The most important critique, however, is the formal reviews. The government has several institutions in place for this purpose, including offices like the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO). These organizations examine the policy implementation to see if it is being enforced properly and is doing what the policy makers intended. They then release reports to Congress and the President for them to take into account for future actions.

Likewise, efforts by think-tanks and academics (such as legal scholars or environmental ethicists) is also important in reviewing the law’s implications and implementation. These groups will also release reports and testify before Congress on behalf of their findings.

And it cycles…

These five steps cycle through in a constant process of policy creation and refinement. In the end, the results are hopefully some productive environmental policies that will help protect our world.

Keep in mind that along the way there are things that you can do to get involved. Being aware of the whole process of environmental policy making will allow you to have a greater understanding of and influence in this important issue.

This post is part of the series: How Environmental Policy is Made

Politics are messy but environmental danger is real. How does such an important topic get addressed without our complex and monolithic system of government? This series provides a look into the history, players, process, and problems involved in trying to enact and modify environmental policy.

  1. How Environmental Policy is Made: Introduction
  2. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 2, History of Environmental and Science Policy
  3. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 3, Key Players
  4. How Environmental Policy is Made–Part 4, Process
  5. How Environmental Policy Is Made–Part 5, Role Of Science
  6. How Environmental Policy Is Made–Part 6, Problems and Hurdles