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Manchin’s permit bill highlights importance of administrative process

Joe Manchin
AP/Mariam Zuhaib
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at the Capitol in Washington.

Last week, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced his long-awaited bill intended to shorten the permitting process for energy projects. A key component of the bill is hastening reviews required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) for such projects. NEPA review, which requires that federal agencies assess the environmental impact of their actions (or those actions that require the agency’s permission to proceed), has long been a bugaboo of conservatives.

NEPA review is one of the rare instances where conservatives wish government would move faster; usually, conservatives attempt to slow down government decision-making. An administrative process that takes a long time achieves two anti-government goals: It delays government action, and it erodes public faith that government can function efficiently.

There are multiple examples of procedural requirements resulting in a slower, less efficient government. The regulatory process has long been criticized as being very burdensome for agencies. Requirements for public participation in rulemakings, regulatory impact analyses for the most significant regulations, review of regulations by the Office of Management and Budget, and numerous other requirements can force agencies to take several years to issue a particular regulation. Many of these requirements were put in place by Republicans, and environmentalists have recently bemoaned the slow pace of the Biden administration in issuing new rules. 

The recent decision by the Biden administration on student loan forgiveness is another example of a simple policy that could easily become a complicated process for beneficiaries. The simplest and quickest way to forgive student loans would be to forgive a certain amount of debt for everyone. Under pressure from Republicans, the Biden administration decided to means test loan forgiveness. Means testing has some good arguments supporting it. But setting up a system whereby people prove their income level and eligibility takes time. This will slow down the forgiveness process.

Like means testing, many of the procedural hurdles to quick government action have worthwhile goals. Requiring environmental impact assessments before building a new pipeline clearly seems worthwhile. So does soliciting opinions from affected communities for their views on executive branch decisions before proceeding with them. Assessing the costs and benefits of an executive branch decision makes it more likely that government actions will cost the public less and save more lives.

But every time we add a step to the process of government action, even a worthwhile step, we slow those decisions down. Now if you oppose those decisions (like liberals do with many energy projects, and conservatives do with many regulations and student debt forgiveness) then the slowing down is a feature not a bug.

I don’t know how effective the Manchin permitting bill will be in facilitating energy production; indeed, there are some arguments that it won’t make a very big difference because it does little to curb the abilities of the judiciary to add time to project approvals.

But the intent behind speeding up government decisions is a reasonable one. Surveys show that public trust in government is nearing all-time lows. There are a lot of reasons for the decline, but every time government moves slowly in response to a public concern some of that trust is lost. Putting deadlines in place to speed up government action is, in general, a good idea. Of course, Congress should do so not just for energy projects but for many other tasks it delegates to the executive branch.

Former Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) was fond of saying, “I’ll let you write the substance … you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.” Let’s worry less about who is screwing who and instead ensure that government works more effectively and efficiently.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.

Tags Decision-making delays energy permitting Environmental review Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Dingell Manchin proposal National Environmental Protection Act NEPA permitting reform Public trust Rulemaking

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