Is the Clean Water Act enforced less rigorously in battleground states?

There are many reasons why administrative regulations may be preferable to burdensome laws when dealing with environmental pollution. Among other things, regulations can provide clearer standards for what types of behavior are and are not allowed, and can provide clearer incentives for companies to reduce polluting behavior. However, a potential disadvantage is that administrative regulations may be more subject to political influence.

If regulatory agencies are accountable to elected officials, we can expect this to have an impact on their enforcement efforts. In particular, if we assume that polluting firms constitute a politically important constituency, we might expect enforcement efforts to be less stringent in highly conflicted (i.e., “battlefield”) jurisdictions. A new article by Huseyin Gulen and Brett W. Myers titled “The Selective Enforcement of Government Rules: Battleground States, State Regulators, and the Environmental Protection Agency” was recently published in the journal Journal of Law & Economicssuggests just such an effect.

Here is the summary:

The Electoral College creates incentives for politicians and regulators to direct political favor toward battleground or swing states. We examine whether this affects enforcement and find that facilities in combative states are less likely to violate the Clean Water Act, in part because permit limits for facilities in those states are less restrictive. Identification is achieved by analyzing the violation rates of similar facilities located along the border between states on and off the battlefield.

Here’s the summary of the article:

The literature on the impact of government regulation largely focuses on whether it benefits or harms social well-being. We examine an equally important and related question: Are regulations enforced uniformly? Our research shows that government entities selectively enforce economically important government regulations, and this selective enforcement is widespread, economically important, and benefits politically important states. Our findings suggest that electoral politics provide incentives for both politicians and regulators to selectively enforce government regulations. Specifically, and consistent with varying levels of enforcement standards, we find that facilities located in battleground states have lower rates of CWA violations than facilities located in non-battleground states. This can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that facilities in battleground states receive more lenient NPDES permits. We achieve identification and control for unobserved heterogeneity by focusing the analysis on similar features located on the border of battlefield and non-battlefield states. We argue that the battlefield status of a facility is likely to be an external source of political significance for facility operators. Our evidence is consistent with the view that government regulators—in our case, EPA and state-level regulators—do not uniformly enforce economically important regulations.