The perennial problems in the administration of the Endangered Species Act show the limitation of aspirational legislation in a domain that defies the standard regulatory solutions. Put simply, if the act were applied uniformly to all of the species in the U.S. that are potential candidates for its reach, Congress would swiftly repeal it.
Supporters of the Endangered Species Act are unwilling to back a more aggressive approach for fear that Congress will gut the act completely.
The hastily enacted amendment to the act to allow the Tellico Dam project to go forward after listing the snail darter on the endangered species list back in the 1970s foreshadowed the problem faced ever since: the Endangered Species Act's potential costs were too high if enforced aggressively. Hence the Fish and Wildlife Service has deliberately slow-walked petitions by keeping the budget severely limited to preserve political viability. This has been true regardless of the party in the White House--the steep decline in Fish and Wildlife listings actually began under the Clinton administration.
The problems with the Environmental Species Act are merely a microcosm of the larger gridlock over environmental policy across the board. Candid environmentalists know the act works poorly, but are unwilling to support possible reform for fear that Congress will gut the act completely--better something that works poorly than nothing at all. Perhaps they are right in this calculation.
But how did we come to this pass? It is all but forgotten today that the Endangered Species Act had considerable conservative support in the 1970s; one of its chief co-sponsors was conservative Senator James Buckley (William F. Buckley's brother); Newt Gingrich still defends the act, but gets no credit for it whatsoever from environmentalists.
Maybe that is the problem: the increasing partisanship and bad faith of the environmental movement is now the chief obstacle to sensible reform of the Endangered Species Act and other antique environmental statutes.
Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.