Congress Threatens to Stifle Public Voice in Decision-Making

Thanks to public participation required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Hoover Dam Bypass runs closer to developed areas, rather than cutting through pristine corridors, and includes accommodations for pedestrian access.

Noppawat Charoensinphon

Perhaps more so than any other environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) ensures critical protections not only for our public health, safety, and environment, but also for public participation, transparency, and government oversight. Yet despite the undeniable benefits NEPA provides to communities in every state (see our compilation of NEPA success stories here), members of Congress are currently trying to strip away protections under the law at the expense of everyday citizens, for the profit of special interests.

While you may have never heard of it, NEPA is actually our nation’s oldest environmental law. Like many cornerstone environmental laws now in the throes of partisan brinkmanship, NEPA passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by a Republican president in 1970. Since then, it has rightfully earned a reputation globally as the “Magna Carta” of environmental laws: By requiring the federal government to consider the impact of development on both the natural and human environment, and giving the public a right to provide input on proposed projects, NEPA is an invaluable tool for protecting communities.  

Surely Republicans in Congress must have good reason for trying to weaken this bipartisan, fundamentally democratic statute; right? Wrong.

While opponents of NEPA argue that “streamlining” or “modernizing” environmental review under the law would allow for “faster, better, and cheaper” infrastructure development, such line of thinking could not be further from reality. Here are just a few reasons why:

1)  NEPA leads to better decision-making and improved project outcomes.

The NEPA review process requires government agencies to consult with the public and consider alternatives to their original project designs. Through thoughtful project analysis and community engagement, NEPA helps uncover ideas, information and solutions that might otherwise be overlooked, leading to better decisions and outcomes that save money and time, and reduce negative impacts to communities and the environment.

2) Lack of funding—not environmental reviews—is the primary cause of project delays. 

While President Trump and members of his administration continue to point fingers at environmental reviews and regulations as the cause of project delay, multiple reports—including one recently commissioned by the Department of Treasury—have shown that lack of public funding is far and away the biggest impediment to infrastructure development.

As former U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary and Secretary of Transportation for Maryland, John Porcari, recently noted in his testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, “The single most important action Congress can undertake to accelerate project delivery is to provide steady, long-term, and predictable funding.”

Moreover, more than 90 percent of highway transportation projects are already excluded from extensive environmental analysis under NEPA, and the environmental reviews for those projects are completed in a month on average. The reality is that the United States is currently facing a $2 trillion backlog of transportation projects around the country. And as Congressman Peter DeFazio so aptly put at a recent congressional hearing, “You can’t streamline your way out of lack of funding.”

3) Adopting new streamlining measures now could only create further delays.

Congress only just recently passed legislation (see here and here) with dozens of streamlining provisions to undermine the environmental review process and public participation under NEPA. Even if we may not have approved of all of them, we have yet to see the full impact of these measures, as they are still in the process of being implemented.

As Senator Tom Carper duly noted at EPW’s recent hearing on NEPA streamlining, adopting new measures now could well perform a disservice to project delivery by delaying provisions in recently-passed legislation. As such, Congress should instead be focused on ensuring that the existing streamlining provisions adopted over the past five years are being fully implemented.

As President Trump and the GOP continue to pursue an agenda that prioritizes corporations over public interest, it is important now more than ever to protect the public’s voice in government decision-making. NEPA ensures that everyday citizens have a say in how their tax dollars are spent on projects that directly impact their lives and communities. President Trump and Congress must not take additional steps to further weaken this fundamentally democratic law. 

About the Authors

Nora Apter

Deputy Director, Federal Affairs, Center for Policy Advocacy

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