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The Planet

The Planet
September 1998 Volume 5, Number 7


Working the System An Owner's Guide to the Federal Government

by Sarah Fallon with Kyra Epstein

If you're like most people, you did a good job of forgetting high-school civics. Distracted as we were by lunchroom drama, it was hard to focus on what we were going to have to do when we grew up: Run the country.

Your beleaguered teacher was basically telling you that the president is not the boss, you are the boss. As a voter you have the power to hire and fire your representative, your senators and your president - and you can make them listen to you once they're in office by watching how they vote . . . and letting them know what you think about it. You also have a say in the regulations federal agencies make if you speak up during comment periods.

Then you can use the court system if the rules aren't enforced. These two pages should help you navigate a sometimes balky and always complicated government. Below, we follow the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 through the three branches of government - legislative, executive, and judicial. At the first stop, we worked hard to pass good legislation. (And there's no way to do this without creating a strong public demand for environmental protection.)

The law that passed ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to set and enforce clean-air standards. The EPA then dealt with the nitty-gritty - and crucial - stuff like how strong those standards would be and how high the fines would run when companies exceed pollution limits. We pressured the EPA to use its power to set strong standards; if the EPA doesn't enforce the standards, we can take the agency or the polluting company to court.

Besides chasing the Clean Air Act around Washington, we've included contact and background information for some of the federal agencies we deal with most frequently. Bear in mind that, while we're focusing on federal activity here, a lot gets done at the state level. First, regional activist groups can make swift and effective use of phone trees to generate calls to Washington. Second, most federal programs to protect the environment are run at the state level. The states, according to one state program director, "are where the rubber hits the road, where the water gets polluted, where the trees get cut, where the air gets fouled."

For example, a state's Department of Natural Resources (or the Department of Environmental Management or the Department of Environmental Quality, depending on the state) gets the money and the authority to enforce regulations set by the EPA if the agency approves the state's program. The state issues permits and monitors companies and municipalities to make sure they're in compliance. Which means that the more influence the local Club has with the state agency, the more effectively the federal laws are enforced. If we've whetted your appetite for more on the environmental body politic, check out You can check the status of federal bills, read the text of legislation, contact your representatives and follow links to federal agencies, the judicial branch and the states.

The other three sections of this feature:

The Clean Air Act through the three branches of government.

Contact and background information for federal entities.

Extra Credit: Nifty marginalia you might like to know.
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