Nixon, My Birthday, and the Clean Water Act that Almost Never Was

The main thing I remember about Richard Nixon is that he ruined my 13th birthday. It was August 8, 1974. My parents took me to a restaurant. TV screens lined the walls, and all eyes were on Nixon delivering his resignation speech. The atmosphere was quiet, somber, decidedly un-birthday-like.  As a 13-year old boy, it was evident that my birthday celebration was being subsumed by more critical events.

Truth be told, as an awkward teenager, I had no appetite for being the center of attention, so Nixon spared me that evening while he was also sparing the country from further mayhem. Nixon is  remembered largely for that resignation in the aftermath of Watergate. He is also remembered for his foreign policy achievements, such as normalizing relations with China and the Soviet Union. In tumultuous fashion, he ended the war in Vietnam. Many also remember the environmental legacy of his administration.

As Nixon’s political career ascended, several things in our country were catching fire: the Cayahoga River for one, along with the nation’s environmental consciousness. A 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California was another crystallizing event, compounded by innumerable sewage releases, rampant litter, and despoiled air and water across the country.

Nixon talks to the press on the beach in Santa Monica, California after an oil spill from an offshore rig.  Source: National Archives, White House Photo Office.


Early in Nixon’s first term, it was evident that the environmental movement was, for perhaps the first time, a political force to be reckoned with.  The movement reached a crescendo with the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.  Twenty million Americans participated in various Earth Day events.

Several of Nixon’s advisers were environmental advocates, including John Ehrlichman and John Whitaker.  The administration’s first couple of years witnessed passage of the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with its first administrator, William Ruckelshaus, and funding for recycling and trash facilities.

However, Nixon’s appetite for new and expanding environmental programs was tempered by his stronger proclivities for economic growth and a smaller Federal bureaucracy.  While the formation of the EPA was a major milestone, Nixon also saw it as a chance to reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy by consolidating the functions of 44 government offices (Rinde, 2017).  As a signal of Nixon’s equivocal stance on the environment, there were also bills to exempt the Alaska pipeline and proposed nuclear power plants from newly-formulated NEPA requirements.

The Clean Water Act (then known as the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments) had a unique trajectory as it threaded its way through a maze of political trade-offs.  While having proposed a law to regulate point sources of pollution, Nixon objected to the final version’s price tag of $24 billion (including funding to finance sewage treatment plants).  The clock was ticking for Nixon to act on the bill, as it would become law with or without his signature if he missed the 10-day deadline.  With minutes to spare, Nixon vetoed the legislation, declaring the bill to be “budget-wrecking.”

The story of what happened next is sure to astound our modern political sensibilities.  Congress overrode the veto and made quick work of it.  Several hours after it happened, the Senate overrode the veto with a vote of 52 to 12.  The 52 votes consisted of 35 Democrats and 17 Republicans.  A short time later, the House voted 247 to 23 for the override (151 Democrats and 96 Republicans supporting the override).

Among the bill’s staunchest supporters was Senator Howard Baker, Republican from Tennessee, who declared  the Act “the most significant and promising piece of environmental legislation ever enacted by Congress” (Snider, 2012).  Baker is also quoted as saying, “If we cannot swim in our lakes and rivers, if we cannot breathe the air that God has given us, what other comforts can life offer us” (Simon, 2019).

Several weeks after the override, Nixon crushed Senator George McGovern in a landslide election.  This emboldened Nixon to renew his efforts to stymie the new Water Pollution Control Act.  He used a presidential power called “impoundment” to withhold half of the funds allocated by Congress for sewage plants.  This, of course, was not a popular move in Congress because it threatened that body’s customary control of the Nation’s purse strings.  The dispute ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court, where a 1975 decision (Train v. City of New York), ruled that the President could not thwart Congressional intent through impounding funds.

So, here is the real magic in the passage of the Water Pollution Control Act – a law that almost certainly never was.  It remained in conference for 10 months due to disparities between the House and Senate versions.  Having finally reached a difficult compromise, Congress presented it to Nixon, who vetoed it. With only a short time to act, both houses of Congress overrode the veto with bipartisan support.  Nixon impounded half of the funds for its implementation, an action that was only halted by the Supreme Court of the United States.

At any point along this tortuous route, the bill, by rights, could have died.  It was kept alive by tenacity, compromise, support from business interests and environmentalists, and an evolving national consciousness that created an imperative for its passage.

One must consider today that unraveling the Clean Water Act is not just a matter of deleting words on paper; it is cheapening the near miraculous alignment of forces that allowed it to become law in the first place.

With Nixon, we are left with a nuanced legacy.  There is no doubt that the Nixon administration ushered in the whole legislative and administrative structure of modern environmental management, and Nixon deserves some of the credit, along with many others (notably the Water Pollution Control Act’s chief advocate, Senator Edmund Muskie from Maine).

In later years, Nixon seemed not to be concerned with this part of his legacy, as evidenced by this telling anecdote:

Years later, when (John) Whitaker told Nixon he would be remembered for his domestic policy successes, especially on the environment, Nixon responded, “For God’s sake, John, I hope that’s not true” (Rinde, 2017).

As we know, presidents cannot always control the narrative of their legacies.  As with Nixon, credit is given for some things earned, some unearned, and some not even desired.

As a footnote, I should point out that Nixon did not mention how he ruined my birthday.   He must have had other things on his mind on August 8, 1974.

Let me know your reflections and recollections at [email protected].

Sources & References

Madel, Robin.  Nixon’s Clean Water Act Impoundment Power Play.  HuffPost, May 22, 2012.

Rinde, Meir. Richard Nixon and the Rise of American Environmentalism.  Distillations: Using Stories From Science’s Past to Understand Our World.  Science History Institute.  June 2, 2017.

Simon, Ellen.  The Bipartisan Beginnings of the Clean Water Act.  The Waterkeeper Alliance.

Snider, Annie. Clean Water Act: Vetoes by Eisenhower, Nixon presaged today’s partisan divide. E&E News, October 18, 2012.

The Environmental Literacy Council (from The Economist).  Regulatory Policy vs. Economic Incentives.  September 2, 1989.

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