The Center on Congress
NOTABLE MEMBERS OF CONGRESS: SENATOR EDMUND S. MUSKIE
Most of the time politicians try to find new solutions to old problems. But every great once in a while a new problem shows up. No one knows what to do about it. And it is those situations which create great leaders.
Governor and later Senator Edmund S. Muskie, a Democrat of Maine, was faced with just this dilemma early in his political career. First, as Governor, he found that Maine's rivers were so polluted new businesses would not locate in his state. So he resolved to clean up water pollution. Water pollution wasn't a new problem. Government action to deal with it was a new solution. Senator Muskie took what he learned as Governor to the United States Senate and crafted imaginative federal legislation in the Clean Water Act of 1972, which today stands as the centerpiece of the nation's fight against pollution of the nation's vital water resources.
Dirty air was an entirely different matter. People throughout the world had choked on impurities put in the air as a byproduct of the industrial revolution. Air pollution was assumed to be a necessary evil. But Senator Muskie thought air pollution was a national disgrace. So, in 1963 he began to do something about it. Almost single handedly he mastered the complexities of the air pollution issue. His knowledge was so formidable and unique that none of his colleagues dared challenge him, either in committee or on the Senate floor. Virtually every one of his air pollution initiatives passed both houses of the Congress unanimously. He had to overcome formidable obstacles to achieve that legislative victory, because many corporations argued that their pollution didn't cause problems and, they claimed, it was too expensive to clean up. So, Senator Muskie first decided a sound scientific basis for regulation had to be developed. His legislation said we had to have solid proof that dirty air was hurting people and things. Then it said we had to find out what was necessary to clean up pollution. What technology was there and how much would it cost? This was information that had been gathered by scientists, government organizations and university professors who had been studying air pollution for years. Their research helped Senator Muskie greatly in writing his laws. Many of them had proven that air pollution adversely affected the public health, and they knew the causes of air pollution. But none knew how to deal with the political problem of getting it cleaned up.
So, Senator Muskie held hearings in Washington and all over the country. He listened to experts, to inventors and to just plain folks. He heard the polluters and the scientists and listened to state governments, local governments and politicians from everywhere. When he had enough information to write a tough law, he then needed political support to accomplish his goal of getting it enacted.
Senator Muskie did not accomplish his goal quickly, nor did he solve our nation's air pollution problem with just a single law. Over a period from 1963 to 1970 he successfully worked to get several bills enacted which together would become the foundation for the nation's most vibrant, most unique and most steadfast environmental laws.
Senator Muskie left the United States Senate to be U.S. Secretary of State in 1980, at the special request of President Jimmy Carter. Senator Muskie died in 1996.
For nearly thirty years, opponents have tried and failed to repeal Senator Muskie's Clean Air Act through proposing legislation and issuing inadequate regulations. Opponents currently are asking the United States Supreme Court to rule against the law's most basic principles. The challenge now is whether this law will continue to protect people's health from air pollution for the new millennium. Most Americans now assume they have a "right" to clean air. But as Senator Muskie knew and proved, only those rights for which we fight over and over are guaranteed.
Today Senator Muskie's integrity in public service and his legislative legacy is being remembered and kept alive through the Edmund S. Muskie Foundation. You can learn more about the work of the Clean Air Trust and the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators by visiting the Muskie Foundation's web site: www.muskiefoundation.org. For links to Web sites on air pollution issues: www.cleanairtrust.org/links.html.
Contributed by Leon G. Billings, President, Edmund S. Muskie Foundation and Former Staff Director, 1966-1978, Senate Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution.
Copyright ©2000, The Edmund S. Muskie Foundation. All Rights Reserved.