Ronald Reagan Administration Essay

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Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004) was the 40th president of the United States from 1981 to 1989 and represented the Republican Party with Vice President George H.W. Bush, who succeeded him as president. Reagan had previously been a movie actor and he was widely acclaimed in the United States as “the great communicator” for his ability to renew patriotism and confidence in the country.

The Reagan administration’s attempt to reduce the role of government in the country and greatly increase the role and power of the private sector was almost wholly negative for the environment. The ability of the administration to put through its policies was facilitated by the unpopularity of outgoing president Jimmy Carter and the subsequent swing toward the Republicans, which gave the party the highest level of power it had enjoyed for a quarter of a century. Reagan’s policies were marked by intense social conservatism, anticommunism, and reliance upon supply-side or “trickle-down” economics.

Support for environmental issues grew enormously during the 1980s as many new environmental concerns became apparent. Emergent problems included acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution from agricultural and industrial sources, and the leakage of toxic substances into groundwater and rivers.

The Reagan administration placed Anne M. Gorsuch (later Burford) in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had been established by the Richard Nixon administration in 1970 to oversee all national environmental protection regulations. Gorsuch’s tenure was marked by incompetence and scandal and, eventually, she and 20 top managers were forced to resign after being found guilty of contempt of Congress. The budget and scope of the EPA were reduced by nearly a quarter and, although its work did continue to improve pollution indices in many American cities, these cuts, combined with tax cuts and slashing of regulations controlling business, led to more environmental problems.

The tenure of James G. Watt, who served under Reagan as Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983, was also marked by controversy. During this period a preliminary effort to turn control of Federal lands over to states-termed by its supporters as a Sagebrush Rebellion-faltered, largely due to lack of interest on the part of states and private land buyers.

Accusations of conflict of interest concerning many top appointed officials whose business concerns may have benefited from government decisions characterized the Reagan administration’s response to these problems. Privatization of public land for possible exploitation by oil and gas companies or for commercial development was highly controversial in a time when people were being evacuated and towns temporarily abandoned because of toxic spills. Concern over the ability of the administration to secure nuclear power plant facilities also mounted in this period, while programs aimed at developing renewable energy sources from the Carter administration were significantly reduced.

Perhaps one positive impact on the environment to result from the Reagan years was the reinvigoration of the environmentalist movement, which had started to lose energy and focus during the 1970s. Reagan himself had little understanding or interest in the environment and once infamously claimed that trees caused more pollution than automobiles did. Conversely, while as governor of California his environmental performance was in some ways commendable; some critics say this was largely the result of pandering to his electorate.

During the Reagan administration, Congress was active on the environmental front and passed the most far-reaching environmental bills since the 1970s. Reagan signed most of the bills into law, sometimes reluctantly. He vetoed some, only to see them repassed over his veto or reworked and sent back to him, winning his grudging approval. Reagan slowed the flow of regulations a little during his first term, but the basic laws held and then were amplified as Congress went back on the offensive. Environmental bills that had been perennial losers finally passed.


  1. Douglas Trevor Kuzmiak, “America’s Economic Future and the Environment: Shaping Tomorrow through an Awareness of Yesterday,” Managerial Auditing Journal (v.10/8, 1995);
  2. Ronald Reagan, An American Life: The Autobiography (Simon & Schuster, 1990);
  3. Richard Reeves, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (Simon & Schuster, 2005).

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