Leon G. Billings: A Memorial Tribute

If you don’t value breathing clean air or using clean water or having good government, feel free to ignore this column. But if any of those things matter to you, take a moment to say “Thank you, Leon Billings” for what he did for all of us over the last half century to provide and protect those precious public goods. Few did more than Leon, who died on November 15, 2016 four days before his 79th birthday.

When Leon joined the staff of Senator Edmund Muskie’s environmental pollution subcommittee in 1966, environmental regulation was in its infancy with the defining national legislation still unwritten. Leon wasn’t a lawyer or a scientist and knew nothing about the environment or pollution when he joined the tiny staff. But he had sound political instincts, brains, resilience, integrity, a willingness to work long hours, and the ability to learn from the experiences life presented him. And he wanted to contribute to making the world a better place than he found it.

In later years, Leon was always willing to expound, verbally and in print, on the contributions of senators from both parties like Howard Baker, John Sherman Cooper, Tom Eagleton, and especially Ed Muskie to shaping the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the other environmental laws that regulated polluters to protect public health. Leon’s writings about Baker, Eagleton and Muskie brought to life the Senate in which they served and their remarkable talents and commitments.

Yet Leon made his own enormous contributions to shaping environmental policy and the operations of the subcommittee that produced some of the most significant and enduring legislation of the 1960s and 1970s. He led the effort to master the technical detail crucial to drafting effective, workable environmental legislation that has yielded public health, environmental, and economic benefits for decades. Leon worked with Muskie and others to forge bipartisan agreements based on common dedication of both Democratic and Republican Senators and committee staff to protecting public health and the environment. The legislative effort was onerous and Leon was in the thick of it. He was widely recognized on both sides of the aisle as a principled and pragmatic person who was a fair and honest broker. Indeed, Leon’s influence was so well recognized that in one Supreme Court argument, Justice Stephen Breyer thought it relevant not only to explore Muskie’s legislative intent but that of Leon’s, too, in order to interpret statutory language.

When I mentioned to a knowledgeable environmental lawyer a decade ago that I would be speaking with Leon Billings for the first time, her reaction made me realize that Leon had not simply been a congressional staffer but was an environmental icon, a hero to those who understood the difference the environmental laws of the 1970s had made and who understood his role in making them happen.

In recommending Leon to be Director of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1976, Muskie told President-elect Jimmy Carter that he held “Leon’s abilities in the highest regard” and doubted that anyone had greater knowledge of environmental law, issues and the related politics. Carter later said one of the least pleasant conversations of his presidency was one with Muskie after he chose someone else for the job.

Leon later joined the Carter administration as one of the few associates Muskie took with him to the Department of State when Muskie became Secretary of State in spring, 1980. By then, Leon had become Muskie’s Senate administrative assistant and he performed a similar service during Muskie’s brief time at Foggy Bottom which ended when Carter’s re-election bid fell short. To Leon’s great credit, his enormous respect for Muskie did not render him afraid to argue with Muskie, and to Muskie’s credit, he recognized Leon’s willingness to engage as among the strengths he brought to public service.

Carter’s defeat did not, however, end Leon’s service to Muskie or to the public. Regarding the former, as Leon said in his eulogy for Muskie in 1996, he worked for Muskie for another 15 years on a voluntary basis. Throughout this period until his untimely death, he has been one of the most thoughtful articulators of Muskie’s legacy. Leon also continued his public service, as Executive Director of the U.S. Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, as a delegate in the Maryland House of Delegates for 12 years, and as a founder of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. He wrote and spoke about environmental law and policy, political institutions and public policy and taught and lectured at various universities and law schools on those subjects.

Leon was an original. To those fortunate enough to have shared some of his time, he was all one would want in a friend—caring, thoughtful, kind, honest, loyal, helpful, decent, generous, and funny.

Thank you, Leon!

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