The Edmund S. Muskie Foundation
About the Foundation
The Founder
Lessons for the Next Generation
Picture Scrapbook
Oliphant Cartoons
Stories and Remembrances
Links to Other Resources
Contact Us

In the Shadow of Greatness
Remarks by Leon G. Billings


The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
March 9, 2005

It is a daunting task to try to describe the Ed Muskie/Howard Baker relationship. Over the course of the day you have heard about the result of this collaboration on the Clean Air Act. A very similar story could be told about the Clean Water Act. So I am going to add to that history.

I have titled my remarks "In the Shadow of Greatness" because I had the great good fortune to serve the United States Senate when it was dominated by great men.

Not only did I get to work for Senator Ed Muskie and Senator Howard Baker, but I got to watch other Senate titans like Al Gore, Sr., Richard Russell, Russell Long, Mike Mansfield and Senator John Sherman Cooper.

Greatness is defined by how you take advantage of the opportunities that exist when you are in a position to affect the outcome. The men I have mentioned were great. There were others who shared that description, but I am going to focus on just two -- Senator Ed Muskie and Senator Howard Baker -- because they did something that had never been done before. They grasped the moment and they changed the world.

If Ed Muskie was the master of the environmental ship, before anyone even thought about environment as public policy, Howard Baker quickly became his first mate and then his co-captain. Muskie had ten years in the Senate when Howard Baker joined him. Within a year, they had together written the Clean Air Act and within three the Clean Water Act.

Legislatively, they went where no Senator, no Member of Congress had gone before. Together, they crafted such concepts as the polluter pays, joint and several liability, statutory standards and deadlines, citizen participation and citizen suits, timely judicial review, health and welfare-based standards, funded mandates, and an enforceable legal mandate that pollution be reduced to the maximum extent technologically possible.

They weren't alone on this boat. They had creative and innovative colleagues. They had staff who knew they were staff and understood the difference.

They engaged one another from the personal perspective that each brought to the table. Each had their biases, but -- and this is perhaps the most important but -- none let his bias close his mind to other ideas. They created consensus based on their personal experience, philosophy and expertise guided by the problems they sought to solve, not the contributors or lobbyists they needed to satisfy.

Muskie and Baker created a framework of law which inspired the laws of states and nations. The Clean Air Act of Japan is called the Muskie law.

As a result of Senator Baker's vision of technology-based emissions standards for cars, we now have mandatory auto emission control programs in countries all over the world. It is estimated that 90% of the new cars produced worldwide this year will have catalytic converters. Technology "forced" by Howard Baker's approach to public policy is being exported to our trading partners.

And because of the laws written by Ed Muskie and Howard Baker, manufacturers have found ways to produce more with less waste and greater efficiency.

But that is the practical side. Much much more important is the revolution they began.

In the Senate I knew, Senators accommodated one another. Ed Muskie trusted Howard Baker. Howard Baker trusted Ed Muskie. They were friends.

Such was the relationship between Senator Muskie and Senator Baker that Muskie refused to campaign in Tennessee when Senator Baker was on the ballot. This is a story Senator Baker may not know.

A long-time supporter of Senator Muskie from Tennessee, who had also been a major contributor to Muskie's failed Presidential campaign, ran against Senator Baker. She pleaded with me to schedule the Senator into the state to campaign for her. I just couldn't find an opportunity, even though Muskie was campaigning elsewhere for Democrats.

Finally, she asked if she could just have a picture with the Senator. That should have been easy. But Muskie resisted. Finally, Senator Muskie insisted I tell Senator Baker's office that, while he didn't want to even have a picture taken, he felt an obligation. Only then did he accede to the photograph.

Another example was during Committee consideration of a highway bill. Senator Baker had given his proxy to Senator Muskie with instructions to make sure that if Senator Scott (a very conservative Republican Senator from Virginia) offered a specific amendment and it was certain to fail, Muskie was to cast the proxy for Scott.

The vote came. Muskie voted Baker's proxy for the Scott amendment, giving Scott two votes. Scott went ballistic. He demanded to know how it would happen that a member of HIS party would give a proxy to a member of the other party.

Finally, reflective of the power and credibility of the Baker-Muskie relationship was their amendment to the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1972. They had tried in Committee to make possible the diversion of unused interstate highway funds for mass transportation. They failed by one vote and decided to take the issue to the floor, even though it meant taking on the Chairman and the highway lobby.

Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Lowell Weicker, a liberal Republican from Connecticut, tried to steal the issue with an amendment nearly identical to the proposal which Senator Baker and Senator Muskie had lost in Committee. Their amendment failed by a 2 to 1 margin.

Immediately thereafter, Baker and Muskie offered their amendment. It passed, albeit narrowly.

A Kennedy aide immediately demanded that I explain why Muskie-Baker passed and the nearly identical Kennedy-Weicker failed. I said, "But they weren't nearly identical." And he said, "show me." And I said, "look at the names on the amendment. Muskie and Baker versus Kennedy-Weicker -- a huge difference." It was a combination that was almost impossible to defeat.

Let me conclude by pointing out that it is not just the visionary Clean Air Act for which these two were responsible. Senator Baker is also the father of the polluter pays principle.

I recall during the Committee's deliberations on the Water Quality Improvement Act of 1970 he taught an ad hoc tort law course to the staff. We learned that negligence was the primary basis on which liability was determined. He even used words like "tort fezor." He told us that tort law was state law, but in the case of oil pollution it was confused by admiralty law.

Senator Baker and Senator Muskie had vigorous debates about the limitations of admiralty law and how vessel owners avoided paying for the damage caused by oil spills because of comparative negligence. They had extensive discussions about whether liability should be absolute or whether acts of God should be excluded. In the end, Senator Baker and Senator Muskie sired the strict, joint and several liability law which today governs Superfund.

And their relationship didn't end with their Senate careers. I suspect Senator Baker, as White House Chief of Staff, was responsible for Ed Muskie being asked to serve as Vice Chairman of the Tower Commission which investigated the Iran Contra arms deal. And I know it was Howard Baker who asked Ed Muskie to meet with his political nemesis, Richard Nixon, for the purpose of trying to persuade then President Reagan to lower the rhetoric against the Soviet Union.

I don't know all the details of the story. Perhaps Senator Baker will embellish it. I only knew about this because Senator Baker wrote an op-ed in the LA Times after the Senator's death.

When I read the story, I was flabbergasted. Had I been consulted, I would have made it clear how I felt. We believed -- and still do -- that Ed Muskie was going to defeat Richard Nixon in 1972. The Nixon campaign pulled all manner of dirty tricks on the Muskie campaign to derail his candidacy.

And yet, with all this history, when Howard Baker asked him to meet with Nixon, Muskie went to New Jersey, met with the former President and participated with him in Senator Baker's effort to avert a crisis with the Soviet Union. And he did it because Senator Baker asked.

All this and they started the environmental revolution too. For that and for creating the policy which has guided my professional career, I want to thank Senator Baker. Thank you. Thank you.

CONTENTS: Introduction - About the Foundation - The Founder
The Next Generation - Picture Scrapbook - Cartoons
Remembrances - Links to Resources - Contact Us

Copyright ©2005, The Edmund S. Muskie Foundation. All Rights Reserved.