WHAT happened to public concern about the environment? Proposals to defund environmental agencies and undo decades-old environmental protections are sailing through Congress. These are not minor adjustments; if passed, they will bring substantial degradation of our air, water, forests, and natural species. Are our elected representatives responding to new preferences of the voters?
There is a perception by the new Republican majority that voter weariness of intrusive government includes "burdensome" environmental regulations.
What data support this idea? The primary evidence cited is that antiregulatory candidates swept last year's elections. Also, opponents of environmental regulations have been outspoken, while support is heard mostly from environmental groups and liberal pundits.
A more thorough analysis, based on national polls and in-depth interviews with voters, suggests that the perception on Capitol Hill is faulty. In pushing anti-environmental proposals, congressional Republicans are taking risks that could threaten other goals more central to their agenda.
The opinion data show that solid majorities now oppose government regulations in general. Environmental regulations, however, are a notable exception.
A 1995 Harris Poll asked, for example, "Do you think the federal government should have the right to set regulations affecting the use of private property" (38 percent answered affirmatively), or "Do you think that the use of private lands should be left solely up to the property owner?" (59 percent said yes). Similar polling questions involving costs to businesses, loss of jobs, and restriction of consumer choices also show solid majority support for government regulation when the goal is environmental protection.
In our own in-depth interviews (research funded by the National Science Foundation). we find that the environment has moved into the mainstream of American values, connected with family and religious values. Parents told us they wanted environmental protection for the sake of their children and their grandchildren; 93 percent of our interviewees agreed that "working hard to prevent environmental damage for the future is part of being a good parent." Many connected religious values to environmental issues; 78 percent of our sample agreed that "because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it."
This integration of environmentalism with other core American values helps to explain its broad, nonpartisan appeal. Polls show that Republican voters favor environmental protection as strongly as Democratic voters.
Perhaps, one could argue, the proposed reductions in environmental protection are consistent with what Republican candidates promised the voters. But the voters wanted a government more responsive to citizens and less beholden to lobbyists and campaign donors. Current anti-environmental proposals don't qualify. Some bills were even written by lobbyists of affected industries rather than legislators or their staff. And many of the proposals to slash environmental protections have been passed within budget bills, in which substantive issues are rarely debated, as if the Republican leadership felt it had something to hide.
There is no evidence that voters want the anti-environmental proposals now emerging from the Congress. The lack of public dissent is more likely the result of the complexity of the proposals, the way they are embedded into the arcane budget process, and the lack of any separate, newsworthy bills.