I learned the sad news last week that Leon Billings, one of the co-authors of several environmental statutes in the 1970s, had passed away. Leon was a creative and dedicated public servant who will be missed by all who knew him. A few years ago he and Tom Jorling, another former Senate staffer (as well as professor, corporate leader, EPA manager and New York State environmental leader) approached us with an offer to teach a course to Columbia students about the origins of U.S. environmental law. When I first worked at EPA in 1977, Jorling was our boss, and I remember thinking that anything he was associated with had to be high quality. I also knew that Tom had been a long-time professor at Williams College, a liberal arts school that valued teaching and nurtured students. I looked forward to a terrific course, and I wasn’t disappointed. Leon Billings and Tom Jorling were inspiring teachers.
Our staff worked with Leon and Tom to prepare for the course, which included digitizing hand written and typed notes from 40 years ago. We also had to borrow an overhead projector from the chemistry department to show visual aids with transparencies; a technology some of our students had never seen.
But I digress; the message today is the incredible effort at consensus building that Leon and Tom staffed and pushed along during the 1970s. Republicans and Democrats worked together to forge environmental compromises and were able to take giant steps forward. This video gives a brief flavor of the course they taught at Columbia. Our students learned firsthand how Billings, Jorling and the elected leaders they worked for worked tirelessly to improve the quality of our air and water.
One of Leon and Tom’s motivations for teaching the course was the dysfunction in today’s U.S. Congress and its inability to update our environmental laws. Until a recent revision of the toxic substance law, there had been no major modifications of American environmental law since 1990. The toxics revision only came about because states were starting to enact their own more stringent toxic chemical laws, and the chemical companies were looking for some national direction to make it easier to do business across state lines.
After Billings and Jorling taught at Columbia they went on to teach the course at Yale and most recently at Arizona State University. Like a Broadway show going on tour, Leon was determined to take his message on the road to reach a broad audience of future environmental sustainability professionals. The message is particularly important as we digest the impact of the most recent national election. We are now waiting to see if President-elect Trump’s campaign message of climate denial and threats to abolish EPA becomes actual public policy. Because even if Congress does not seem to know how to reach across the aisle and forge compromises as they did when Billings and Jorling led their staffs, the American people have not forgotten the importance of a clean and healthy environment. If anything, our desire to protect our children from the possible harm of a sometimes hostile world has increased over these past decades.
In speaking about infrastructure, President-elect Trump spoke about how wonderful the airports looked in China and in other parts of the world as compared to our own LaGuardia and LAX airports. He is of course quite correct in lamenting our under-investment in infrastructure. But while the airports in China are wonderful, the air quality outside them is often dangerous. While we let our infrastructure crumble, America invested in technology that reduced the air pollution from our autos and power plants. While our population and economy has grown since 1980, environmental regulation has made our air and water cleaner than it was in 1970. I’m sure China wishes it had grown without fouling the air and water.
Although disinvestment and dysfunction has been a legacy of the past several decades in Washington, the structure of environmental law put into place from 1970 to 1990 and largely implemented by American cities and corporations has had a profound and positive impact on our environment and health. America’s environment was not great in the 1960s. We burned garbage in incinerators in New York City, our rivers caught fire, and we were still burying toxics in barrels near our groundwater. In the last few decades, we made those problems less bad and started down the path toward a cleaner environment.
This was Leon Billing’s life work. In what turned out to be the last years of his life, he devoted himself to making certain that the historical record of the development of the structure of American environmental law was preserved and taught to a new generation of leaders. One cold autumn evening in 2014, my colleague Mike Gerrard of Columbia Law School moderated a public discussion with Tom and Leon about the same topic they were teaching about: the origins of American environmental law. Both Billings and Jorling provided crucial insight about this important part of environmental history, and what is always striking when I listen to them, as I did once again this past week, is their sense of patriotism and shared purpose. Partisanship was certainly part of the equation—Jorling worked for Republicans and Billings worked for Democrats, but both worked for America. Restoring that spirit of unity and purpose ought to be the goal of the new president and Congress.
Sadly, I doubt we will see the type of unity and compromise we need, because both governing in Washington and reporting on government has become a lucrative business. When TV first started broadcasting news it was considered a public service, a money-losing enterprise that was conducted in exchange for access to public airways. Now it is a money-making business. It attracts extreme views because they make for more dramatic and ratings-grabbing television and viral videos. Social media has invented fact-free news and has created an echo chamber where people hear their preconceptions confirmed. Politicos throughout America are busy digesting the lessons of Donald Trump’s electoral success, and measured language did not win electoral votes.
Money and American politics are no strangers to each other, but the situation has gotten out of control, especially in the post-Citizens United era when spending money is considered a form of free speech. In addition, Congress and the federal bureaucracy have become a highly lucrative revolving door. Time in government is immediately followed by cashing in on the connections and insider knowledge of where the resources are and how to score big benefits from federal contracts, or tax laws. Americans used to go to Washington to serve the nation, now too many go there to get in on the easy money.
If an emboldened Tea Party caucus in Congress tries to repeal America’s environmental laws and regulations, they will be misreading their already thin mandate and will soon wish they’d focused on something else. If Chuck Schumer is getting his filibuster voice ready, he should be prepared to use it to resist any effort to repeal these laws or dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. The American people expect government to protect them from environmental pollution.
If you had the experience of hearing Leon Billings teach and tell stories, it is hard to believe his voice is no longer with us. He was a great American and an important figure in American environmental history. When I walked along the Hudson River in New York City’s Riverside Park last week, I thought about what he did to clean up that river. When you look up this Thanksgiving Thursday and see a blue sky without a hint of deep gray pollution haze, you might also think about Billings, Jorling and their bosses Senators Church and Muskie, and be thankful that they were in the right place at the right time.