Leon Billings & Tom Jorling

Billings - State Representative, Maryland; Majority Staff Director, U. S. Senate Public Works Committee. Jorling - Vice President, International Paper Corp; Secretary, New York Department of Environmental Conservation; U.S. EPA Executive; Minority Counsel, Senate Public Works Committee

Interview Year: 2015

Leon Billings was the first staff director of the U.S. Senate environment subcommittee created under the Committee on Public Works in 1963.  Hired by Chair Senator Edmond Muskie, Billings had primary staff responsibility for clean air and clean water legislation from 1966-1977,  national hazardous waste legislation, and the Superfund cleanup law.  He continued to serve as Muskie’s advisor and as his chief of staff when he became Secretary of State.  Billings served as a member of the Maryland state legislature from 1991-2003.  He recently joined with pioneer Thomas Jorling to teach at Columbia and Yale law schools on the history of the framework environmental laws and has worked to develop digital archives of documents from that history.

Billings credits the leadership of many individual senators, both Democrats and Republicans, for the extraordinary output of environmental legislation from the 1960s through 1990, stating that the committee staff members “were in the shadow of greatness.”   He attributes their success first and foremost to the senators’  commitment of personal time working through the complex issues in the legislation. In that era, he observes, senators did not have to raise campaign money constantly and most did not even campaign until six months before elections.   So they had “time to attend to business, to attend hearings, to listen to briefings, and even sometimes to listen to, if not pay attention to staff.”  He emphasizes that he and Senator Muskie learned the importance of holding closed meetings so committee members could thrash out differences without the need to play to their political constituencies. 

In his work with students, Billings has confirmed that “there’s a whole generation of people out there who think the environment belongs to them and think they’re entitled to a clean environment.”  Discouraged by the current state of the political process, this architect of U.S. environmental laws sees social pressure as the source of any optimism about the prospects for progress on today’s environmental agenda. 

Thomas Jorling’s tenure as Minority Counsel for the Senate Committee on Public Works that produced the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 made his reputation because of the extraordinary innovation and durability of these laws and the remarkable bipartisan staff and senatorial collaboration that made them possible.  But Jorling’s pioneering work on that legislation was only the beginning of a lifetime of environmental leadership in government, business, and academia.

In the Carter Administration, Jorling served as Assistant Administrator for water and hazardous waste, with responsibility for implementing the statutes he helped to write as well as the new hazardous waste laws enacted in the mid seventies.  He also led the New York Department of Environmental Conservation under Governor Mario Cuomo and managed the state’s vast natural resources as well as its pollution control programs.  In between these government posts, he was a professor and Director of Environmental Studies at Williams College, establishing the first interdisciplinary environmental program at the college level in the United States. 

From 1994-2004, he headed the Environmental Affairs function at International Paper Corporation with major compliance and forest policy responsibilities for its operations in 25 countries.  In retirement, he serves on numerous nonprofit boards of directors, including NEON, Inc., the Williamstown Rural Land Foundation, and Vermont Law School.  With his partner from the Senate Public Works Committee days, Leon Billings, the majority staff director, he has recently lectured at Columbia and Yale law schools on how the environmental legislation of the early seventies came together and what critical factors made such groundbreaking bipartisan action possible in the early seventies.