Obscured by the tumult surrounding President Donald Trump's horrendous response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the White House managed to take a significant positive step this week: issuing an executive order designed to lower regulatory barriers to infrastructure projects, and to speed up and simplify the process for obtaining necessary permits and clearances.
It wasn't the first White House to try. When I worked in the Obama administration in 2009, I called a meeting of agency officials, asking them to explore how we might streamline the permitting process for both individuals and companies. About halfway into the one-hour meeting, I realized that none of the officials had offered even a single word in response to my question. Instead, they explained why nothing could be done — as if the purpose of the meeting was to demonstrate that the status quo was great, and that it would be impossible to change it.
The status quo is not great. It's ridiculous. If the permitting bureaucracy were a supervillain, it would be the Blob. It can take several years, and millions of dollars, to obtain environmental clearance for construction permits, even if the goal is to develop green infrastructure and to improve the environment.
Significant reforms are needed in three areas.
The first involves the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to catalogue and consider environmental effects before they can proceed with actions that might hurt the environment. It's a well-intended law with an important goal, but in some respects it's also a case study in unintended consequences.
Under the law, developers often have to navigate an expensive and costly approval process, potentially including draft environmental impact statements, comments on environmental impact statements, nasty public hearings, and final environmental impact statements. If they manage to get through all that, they might well face a lawsuit — maybe from an environmental organization, maybe from community groups, and maybe from self-interested companies who just don't want the competition.
Environmental impact statements can run to hundreds of pages; they're books, even encyclopedias. The review process can easily take three years or more, so agencies and developers sometimes just give up.
The second problem involves the number of entities with veto power. If you want to improve an airport, build a new highway or increase sources of renewable energy, you might have to deal with several state agencies, local officials, and two or more federal agencies — as well as an assortment of private organizations with economic or environmental concerns. If even one of those agencies wants a delay, or has some kind of bee in its bonnet, it can stop the project in its tracks. For countless people (including small businesses and even individuals), it's something out of Kafka: No one's in charge.
The third problem involves bureaucratic culture. For many permitting authorities, the incentive is to delay, to require more documentation, or to just say no. If a permitting agency maintains the status quo, it will avoid negative public attention, noisy complaints from interest groups and potentially serious risks (environmental or otherwise). It might even look like a hero. It won't bear the costs of refusing to allow a project to go forward, even if they turn out to be very high for the American people.
Alert to these problems, the administration of President Barack Obama issued some significant reforms, which included greater transparency, coordination and accountability. Those reforms have helped. And to be sure, serious infrastructure improvements require funding, not merely easing permitting requirements. But more streamlining needs to be done.
Building on Obama's actions, Trump's executive order calls for tracking every major infrastructure project, with public disclosure of deadlines and of whether they have been met, alongside potential penalties for poor performance. Importantly, it also requires measurement of the costs of environmental reviews.
One of its best provisions calls for "one federal decision," meaning there will be a lead agency for every major infrastructure project with the responsibility "for navigating the project through the federal environmental review and authorization process." The order also imposes new obligations on the Department of the Interior, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Council on Environmental Quality, requiring them to reduce burdens and simplify the process.
For Trump's order to work, everything will depend, of course, on implementation. As President Harry Truman said of his Army-trained successor, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower: "He'll sit here and he'll say, 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won't be a bit like the Army."
Defeating the permitting Blob will require sustained follow-through from the executive branch, and both dedication and toughness on the part of its leadership. But let's give credit where it's due: This week's executive order provides an excellent foundation for achieving that goal.