John Chafee: The Gentle Warrior
by Steven Shimberg
John Chafee, who chaired the Senate Environment Committee until his death last fall, managed to achieve environmental progress under the most adverse political circumstances. In an era of sound bites and personal attacks, he showed that civility and consensus are the keys to legislative success.
John Chafee loved to quote Teddy Roosevelt’s observation that “of all the great questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” Or as the senator put it himself, “Given half a chance, nature will rebound and overcome tremendous setbacks, but we must—at the very least—give it that half a chance.”
As a veteran of Guadalcanal who went on to serve in the Korean War, Chafee knew that, in the U.S. Senate, it is more important to win the war than any particular battle. He knew the importance of timing: when to engage your opponent; when to hold the line; when to retreat; and when to go on the offensive. That knowledge served him well as he fought in the Senate for 23 years to protect public health and our environment and natural resources.
He also knew the value of decency and fair play. When he arrived in the Senate in 1977, Chafee joined the Committee on Environment and Public Works. As a freshman, he admired and learned from the skills of colleagues such as Edmund Muskie, Robert Stafford, Jennings Randolph, and others. After the Supreme Court’s famous 1978 decision in Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, the Tellico Dam snail darter case, he soon found himself in the middle of a battle with the senior senator from that state, the powerful Republican leader Howard Baker. Placing substance above party politics, Chafee fought to protect the integrity of the Endangered Species Act. He worked on an elaborate solution that created the act’s “exemption committee”— sometimes known as “the God Squad.” Despite complaints from many in the environmental community at the time, everyone now agrees that Chafee won the war, and saved the ESA. It was the first of many such victories.
Saving the landmark environmental laws of the 1970s became a full-time job after the 1980 election, when President Reagan moved into the White House and appointed James Watt as interior secretary and Anne Gorsuch as EPA administrator. The Republican party also took over the Senate. Fortunately, Stafford became chairman of the Environment Committee and Chafee became chairman of the subcommittee on environmental pollution. Working together, they took advantage of the fact that it is much harder to enact legislation than it is to block it. Over the next several years, they worked with committee Democrats to stymie several attempts to amend and weaken key statutes.
At the same time, Chafee began to compile a remarkable record of environmental accomplishments, many a direct response to Executive Branch proposals to weaken existing regulations or failure to implement or enforce the law. Quietly but methodically, Chafee worked with Democrats in the Senate and House and with fellow moderate Republicans on the Environment Committee to enact legislation to strengthen provisions of the Clean Water Act dealing with toxic pollution in 1981 and 1986; to force listing decisions and promote reintroduction of species to their historic habitat under the ESA in 1982; and to change hazardous waste management and disposal practices for both large and small generators under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1984.
Chafee didn’t seek to embarrass or browbeat his opponents. Instead, he would carefully build a record of facts and expert opinion to support his position. Perhaps more importantly, he would always seek to address the legitimate concerns of whoever voiced opposition to his legislation. His gentle manner and sincere interest in addressing their concerns had a disarming effect on his opponents.
As a fiscally conservative Republican, Chafee could, on occasion, enlist the support of unusual allies. For example, he was able to convince Secretary Watt to support a novel approach to protecting the fragile barrier islands and beaches along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts — eliminate federal subsidies which were helping to underwrite the private development of these areas. The result was enactment of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act in 1982.
John Chafee was an old school politician. He didn’t use opinion polls or media campaigns to pick his issues or to win his legislative battles. Rather, he would choose his issues on the basis of an uncanny personal compass and an innate sense of what was important — to people and to the global environment. That is what led him to convene hearings and to push for action to address stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming before either was a widely recognized problem.
In 1986, Chafee began educating his colleagues about the dangers of ozone depletion and slowly built support in the Senate for a strong international treaty to control chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone destroying compounds. In 1987, when Secretary of the Interior Don Hodel suggested that increased use of sunglasses and hats was an acceptable alternative to controlling CFCs, Chafee pounced on that blunder and, with the help of Senator Max Baucus, successfully steered through the Senate a series of resolutions that helped produce the Montreal Protocol.
The Democrats regained control of the Senate after the 1986 elections but there was little that changed on the environmental legislative front. There may have been fewer defensive battles but the struggle to enact new laws continued. In 1989, Chafee was presented with two legislative opportunities and, working closely with Baucus and Majority Leader George Mitchell, successfully seized both of them.
First, the Exxon Valdez oil spill created the opportunity to overhaul and strengthen oil spill legislation. Second, President Bush offered a limited Clean Air Act proposal and created the opportunity to finally amend a law that was badly out of date and in need of strengthening amendments. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 were as far-reaching and significant as any environmental law ever enacted. The law requires aggressive efforts to reduce urban smog, more stringent tailpipe pollution standards, and dramatic reductions in pollutants that cause acid rain.
Chafee would often comment on the criticism and low League of Conservation Voter scores that he, Mitchell, and Baucus received from the environmental community during the 1990 Clean Air Act debate. The senators were publicly accused of undermining the effort to pass a strong bill. After the fact, they were hailed as “heroes of clean air.” (In subsequent years, he would recount the Clean Air Act story whenever his decisions or votes produced similar public expressions of “outrage” from the environmental community.) But Chafee’s leadership on clean air and other environmental issues contributed to a growing displeasure with him among an increasingly conservative Republican caucus, and in 1990, they voted to remove him as chairman of the Republican Conference, a leadership post.
Then came the 1994 elections, which produced Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time in four decades. Chafee became chairman of the Environment Committee at the same time as, over in the House, the Contract With America was producing one anti-environmental bill after another. Despite the large number of Senate colleagues who had come from the House and thought it the Senate’s duty to follow the House’s lead, Chafee was quick to observe that he, too, had faced the voters that November and he had heard no public outcry for the enactment of anti-environmental legislation.
Convinced the attack on the environment was unwarranted and unwise, he repeatedly tried to convince the Republican caucus to change course. Failing that, he refused to move the legislation through his committee and, when they tried to avoid the committee by bringing amendments directly to the floor, he would not let them get away without a fight. He did not enjoy these fights but he was always ready to lead the charge. The locker room mentality of the Senate cloakroom produced a lot of unpleasant banter and tremendous peer pressure to “look the other way” or “let the Democrats take the lead.” But John Chafee wouldn’t back down. He always told his staff to do the right thing, and he held himself to the same standard.
Whenever a tough environmental issue was coming to the floor, many Democrats and a handful of Republicans would refuse to commit to a position until they knew where Chafee stood. The refrain “Where is Chafee?” became a familiar one. A modest man, Chafee would scoff at the idea that so many senators were waiting for his leadership. Recognizing the enormity of the political and societal challenges facing the environmental and conservation community, he felt it was part of his responsibility to keep “the troops” energized and excited. Each speech would start with a review of the successes we have achieved over the past 30 years. “Sure,” he would acknowledge, “there are more challenges to face but, no challenge, no job!” John Chafee was an eternal optimist. He would always remind us that the glass was half full.
Chafee was a natural leader and the failure of his Republican colleagues to recognize that fact was their loss. He rarely spoke of his combat experiences but one night, in the privacy of his office, he shared the following story. In Korea, his Marine company was moving across snow-covered ground that was believed to be covered with land mines. No one in the company was eager to march through the area, so Captain Chafee took point and led his men through the snow. When the Marines reached the top of the hill, he looked back and observed that the entire company had left only one set of tracks as each marine had carefully stepped exactly in his footprints.
We would all be well served if more of our political leaders tried to follow in John Chafee’s footsteps. He set the standard for decency, civility, and kindness, and the example of how to disagree without rancor. That he accomplished so much for the environment shows that his approach was the right one.
A Quiet Man Who Spoke Through His Deeds On The Environment Committee
By Max Baucus
When Senator John Chafee passed away on October 24, the environment lost a great champion, the Senate lost a gifted legislator, and many of us lost a cherished friend. There have, fittingly, been many tributes, describing John’s extraordinary career as a soldier, governor, secretary of the navy, and senator. I appreciate the opportunity to add a few additional thoughts for The Environmental Forum’s readers about his service on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
John joined the committee when he came to the Senate in 1977. I joined about 18 months later. Back then, I never guessed that we’d develop a close relationship. We were junior members, sitting way across the dais from one another. Our states and our backgrounds were very different. Montana has ranches bigger than Rhode Island.
Nevertheless, circumstance and seniority brought us together. We worked together on the committee for more than twenty years, each eventually serving as chairman. During this time, John improved our environmental laws in many ways. Three examples stand out.
The first was John’s work, beginning in 1981, as chairman of the committee’s Environmental Protection Subcommittee. Although (as Steve Shimberg explains elsewhere in this issue) John was prepared to stand up against his own party’s administration in the 1980s when it tried to undermine our environmental laws, he stressed a positive, creative approach. He looked for opportunities to get beyond partisanship and bring people together. For example, in 1982, under the leadership of John and the ranking member of the subcommittee, George Mitchell, the subcommittee developed a set of common-sense amendments to the Endangered Species Act. Over several years, the subcommittee developed a set of amendments to the Clean Water Act that, among other things, established the innovative state revolving loan fund. In 1984, the subcommittee wrote major amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
And John wasn’t just interested in the big issues that bring headlines and accolades. He also worked hard on bills that seemed relatively unimportant in the overall scheme of things, but that improved the environment in significant ways. One such bill that John developed during this period is the 1982 Coastal Barriers Resources Act. Very few people have heard about it, but, by prohibiting certain types of federal assistance in the 2,500-mile coastal barrier resources system, the act fragile areas and saves taxpayers’ money. There were others, including bills to improve the Lacey Act (which makes it illegal to transport wildlife taken in violation of state law), to improve the Sikes Act (which provides for conservation on military reservations), and to establish the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The second example is John’s work on the Clean Air Act. John had been involved in the debate for years, leading the way on issues like acid rain and ozone depletion. By the time that the long debate finally came to a head, in 1989-90, I had become chairman of the Environmental Protection Subcommittee and John the ranking Republican member of the full committee. We worked closely together. It was tough going, especially once we took the bill to the Senate floor. Lacking the votes to invoke cloture, we had to engage in what turned out to be more than a month of negotiations.
We sat there in a small room just off the Senate floor, facing wave after wave of unhappy senators, sometimes until one or two in the morning, working out compromises on acid rain, permits, mobile sources, enforcement, and scores of other issues. When we finally took the bill back to the Senate floor, we found that, in order to protect the compromise, we had to vote against amendments that we personally supported. There were some very close votes. But John never wavered, and he never lost his patience. In the end, he persuaded President Bush and Republican senators to support a strong bill.
The third example is John’s work, beginning in 1995, as chairman of the full committee. He was able to steer the committee clear of radical efforts to roll back environmental laws. He refused to consider the House bill that weakened the Clean Water Act. He took a cautious approach to wetlands reform. And he took strong stands against the excesses of takings and regulatory reform legislation proposed by other committees. He held hearings to examine the impact of takings legislation on Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other environmental laws. During the 1995 regulatory reform debate, he proposed the Glenn-Chafee substitute that came within a few votes of passing. In 1998, he and I sent a letter to the Government Affairs Committee explaining how that committee’s regulatory reform bill could undermine environmental laws.
But John also understood the need to respond to the legitimate criticism that our environmental laws can be improved. He led the committee in developing amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act that made that law more efficient and more effective; the amendments contain innovative provisions allowing the targeted use of cost-benefit analysis, establishing a multimedia approach to the regulation of radon, enhancing citizens’ right to know about the quality of their drinking water, and giving states the flexibility to transfer funds between their drinking water and sewage treatment funds, so that they can respond to their own most pressing needs. Ultimately, the bill won the support of states, local governments, and the environmental community. He also led the committee in developing a series of amendments to the Endangered Species Act that, although not enacted into law, attracted bipartisan support with its balanced approach.
We had our disagreements, especially over Superfund. But, by and large, during John Chafee’s chairmanship, the Environment and Public Works Committee was an oasis of civility, moderation, and bipartisanship.
John’s legislative accomplishments on the committee were impressive. But, to me, it is the man that mattered most. Like one of his heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, John had a genuine love for the outdoors. I saw this first hand back in 1985. We were having problems with the management of the grizzly bear population on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. So John decided to learn about the problem first-hand. We held a hearing in Great Falls. John presided. But he didn’t just fly in, hold the gavel for a few hours, and fly out. After the hearing, he went down to the Pine Butte Nature Preserve, to learn more about grizzlies and their habitat. He rode into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I have never seen anyone with more reverence and enthusiasm for the land and its natural beauty. In fact, at one point during the ride, John turned to me and exclaimed, “Max, I wish Rhode Island had some wilderness, so that we could protect it!”
Most of all, John Chafee was a decent, civil, common-sense gentleman. As those of you who attended our hearings know, he always started on time and was unfailingly courteous to witnesses; small points, perhaps, but characteristic. He never raised his voice. He never lost his temper. He listened carefully to the other person’s point of view. He wouldn’t let conversations drift to gossip or extraneous matters that prevented us from accomplishing our objective. He tried to find solutions, to bring people together. And, even during the most difficult negotiations or floor debates, he often had a good-natured twinkle in his eye; to me, it showed that he kept things in perspective, never taking himself too seriously.
John Chafee’s passing leaves a large void on our committee. But he left us a model of legislative accomplishment and personal character that we should strive to match.
This is a chapter from CFC-Ozone Puzzle: Environmental Science in the Global Arena (Lecture).
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