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Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Through the Ages

The Senate creates the Public Buildings and Grounds Committee to oversee the development of the Capitol complex and federal buildings. The committee’s name changes several times over the next 110 years, but its focus remains largely the same.

The National Industrial Recovery Act creates the Public Works Administration to quickly spend $3.3 billion on public works projects to revive the economy during the Great Depression. The Supreme Court later rules the act is unconstitutional, but the public works component survives until World War II.

The Senate renames the panel the Public Works Committee after a reorganization of Congressional committees.

Sen. Thomas Kuchel (R-Calif.), who was appointed to the Senate to the seat vacated by Vice President Richard Nixon, teams up with Sen. Homer Capehart (R-Ind.) to push the Air Pollution Control Act (Pub.L. 84-159), the first major air pollution bill, through the Public Works Committee. This bill helps establish the committee’s jurisdiction over environmental issues.

Committee member Albert Gore Sr. (D-Tenn.) crafts the Senate version of the Federal Aid Highways Act (Pub.L. 84-627) that initiates the interstate highway system. Sen. Prescott Bush (R-Conn.), the father of former President George H.W. Bush, becomes a key supporter of the measure.

The committee assumes responsibility for air and water quality issues and passes the first Clean Air Act (Pub.L. 88-206), granting the federal government authority to curb air pollution.

The committee updates the Clean Air Act (Pub.L. 91-604), which gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to develop and enforce regulations that protect public health against hazardous airborne contaminants. The committee assumes jurisdiction over the EPA.

The committee passes the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments Act (Pub.L. 92-500), shifting the former quality-based approach to water restoration to a preventive approach.

The committee approves the Water Resources Development Act (Pub.L. 93-251) to coordinate the development and protection of water resources and flood protection.

The Environment and Public Works Committee assumes its current name during another major committee reorganization. The committee now has jurisdiction over endangered species, fish and wildlife refuges and programs as well as the regulation of nonmilitary nuclear power.

The committee passes the Superfund program, also known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (Pub.L. 96-510), in order to clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites.

Led by Sen. Quentin Burdick (D-N.D.), the committee shepherds the Clean Air Act Amendments (Pub.L. 101-549) through the Senate, expanding the federal government’s regulatory authority over air pollution, especially for urban pollution such as smog and carbon monoxide. The act also lays the groundwork for emission banking and trading schemes.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) becomes the first female Senator to lead the committee. The last Californian to lead the panel was railroad tycoon Sen. Leland Stanford (R) in 1893. In December, the committee becomes the first panel to report out climate change legislation, but the bill dies in the full Senate in June 2008.

Boxer works to develop a climate change bill to complement draft energy legislation crafted by Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

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