Reagan's Push for California's Waiver Has a Lesson for Trump
Neewilly Emmanuel Kweh
Sept. 21, 2019
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump just declared war on California’s longstanding ability to set its own clean air standards, which often exceed those set by Washington. But the obscure, little-appreciated history of this particular provision doubles as a warning to Republicans: The forces that drive states’ rights coalitions can prove painfully unpredictable.
Los Angeles is something of a geographical freak of nature: It lies at the bottom of an enormous inverted bowl surrounded on three sides by mountains. The fourth side faces the Pacific Ocean. Unlike most coastal cities, Los Angeles gets little wind, and cooler air close to the ground gets trapped in the bottom of the “bowl.”
This effect was noticeable as early as the 16th century: Smoke from Indian campfires remained trapped in the area, prompting one Spanish explorer to dub nearby San Pedro Bay the “Bay of Smokes.” When Los Angelinos started driving a few centuries later, tailpipe emissions became an enormous problem. On September 8, 1943, for example, Los Angeles suffered “Black Wednesday,” when smog blinded drivers and blistered the paint off cars.
This was bad for business, and very quickly a coalition of Republican businessmen like Norman Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, banded together. In 1947, California passed the Air Pollution Control Act, the first such law in the nation.
The campaign against pollution soon caught on at the national level, even as California led the way. Congress passed legislation in 1955 that directed tax dollars toward researching the problem; subsequent laws passed in 1963 and 1965 actually directed the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to regulate pollutants and establish new emission standards for cars.
But the regulations under consideration by the federal government fell short of what California wanted, and what Los Angeles, in particular, needed. One man in particular pushed this argument on behalf of the Golden State: Ronald Reagan.
As governor, he presided over the creation of California’s powerful Air Resources Board in 1967. When Congress began debating a bill aimed at regulating air pollution -- the eventual Air Quality Act of 1967 -- Reagan saw a threat to his state’s higher standards. Federal rules would naturally overrule ones from the state -- unless an exception was granted.
It fell to California Senator George Murphy, a Republican and close ally to Reagan, to press the case in Congress. But when Murphy tried to amend the bill, federal regulators working for President Lyndon Johnson protested; so, too, did automakers. In the House of Representatives, Congressman John Dingell, a Democrat whose district was home to Ford, successfully amended a separate version of the bill which prevented individual states from pre-empting federal regulations. He was joined by several Republican colleagues.
The strangest of bedfellows paired up for the fight, which left California Republicans (and a handful of Democrats) thwarted by Midwestern Democrats (and a smattering of Republicans). But not for long. When news of Dingell’s amendment settled like so much smog on the California political landscape, voters on both sides of the political spectrum erupted in rage.
Californians began to deluge Congress with letters, eventually sending a half million pieces of angry mail – a record mobilization at the time. The state’s congressional delegation – Democrats and Republicans alike -- went after Dingell, exposing his close ties to the auto industry.
Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, a California Democrat, railed against the auto industry, which he accused of “swaggering through our House Office building with high-handed lobbyists. In a joint statement with a colleague, he asked: “Are we now to tell California that we don’t quite trust her own program, that big government should do it instead?”
At the same time, the House Republican Policy Committee came out against Dingell’s amendment and for Murphy’s version of the bill. But in order to topple Dingell, the Republicans needed some more Democrats to defect to their side. And they found a powerful argument in the hoary doctrine of “states’ rights.”
Congressman H. Allen Smith, a Republican from California, put the matter this way: “We just want our states’ rights. We want to have the right to try to solve our very serious problem.” This was not just rhetoric to him: Earlier in the decade, Smith had sided with Southern Democrats, voting against both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Those same Southern Democrats listened intently to the debate. And they quickly threw their lot with the Californians. Rep. William Colmer of Mississippi spoke up, welcoming them into what he described as “the states’ rights fold.” He then declared his support for exempting California. Other Southern Democrats followed suit.
Very quickly, the battle broke in California’s favor. Dingell slunk away, defeated by this strange new alliance between pro-business Republicans and southern Democrats. Congress eventually passed the bill with the waiver for California. Three years later, it passed the Clean Air Act, which was much stronger but also provided an exemption for the state. The following year, Governor Reagan signed a state bill that would curtail auto emissions well beyond the federal standards.
There are moments in history when the usual political fault lines become scrambled. The debate over California’s exemption in 1967 was arguably one of those moments. Somehow, someway, pro-business Republicans, liberal Democrats, and conservative Southern Democrats found common ground on an unlikely issue.
And the political ground kept shifting in head-spinning ways.. Republicans, including Reagan, became increasingly hostile to environmental regulation, while Southern Democrats eventually became Republicans. Gradually, a new Republican party emerged. Not coincidentally, California, the cradle of the modern conservative movement, became a Democratic stronghold.
And now a Republican president who lost California by more than 4 million votes has declared war on the state. If President Trump succeeds, he will almost certainly destroy what’s left of the Republican party in California. In the past decade, House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy has watched his delegation dwindle; lowering pollution standards won’t help his cause. (Indeed, McCarthy’s home district of Bakersfield is routinely listed as having the most polluted air in the country, state regulations notwithstanding.)
But the more important consequence may be how this issue scrambles traditional political fault lines. By effectively attacking states’ rights, Trump may provoke a serious political realignment, as members of both parties make common cause with each other – much as they did over a half century ago. When that process is complete, the political parties as we know them today may be very different indeed.
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Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.
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