These legislative riders sit low in the saddle

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In Pale Rider, a 1985 third-rate version of the movie Shane, Clint Eastwood plays the slow-talking, straight-shooting gunman (and clergyman to boot, credibility not being this flick's strong suit) who saves settlers from a big mining company.

The riders being discussed hereabouts are pale enough, but not one of them would discomfit a big mining company. To the contrary, at least one would please all the big mining companies by limiting a moratorium on federal mining patents to one year.

These riders are not strong, silent hombres upon a pale horse. Nor do they come with mystical references to the book of Revelations, from whence emanateth the phrase. They are, instead, little pieces of legislation - little in their length, not necessarily their impact - appended to big pieces of legislation, upon which they "ride."

The strategic advantage of the rider should be obvious. Attaching a small matter to a large one puts the opposition at a disadvantage. A president - this one, for instance - who would surely veto a bill authorizing a road through the Izenbeck National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, is less likely to veto a bill appropriating all the money needed by the Interior Department to operate during the fiscal year commencing Oct. 1. Presto! Append the Izenbeck road authorization to the Interior Department Appropriations Bill and let the president decide whether to risk putting his Interior Department out of business for a few days, or a few weeks.

Furthermore, a rider typically does not go through the usual process of being considered by committee, vetted by experts, supported and opposed in hearings, and subjected to amendment before it gets to the floor. Somebody just brings it up in committee and gets it attached to the bill under consideration, with the other members sometimes paying little heed.

Riders are not new. During the Reagan administration, when the Democrats ran the Congress, they were not shy about appending some of their pet policy preferences onto any appropriations bill which happened along. Even the fabled Boland Amendment - the one banning U.S. assistance to rebels in Nicaragua - was a rider on an appropriations bill.

But there was nothing pale about it. Rep. Edward Boland of Massachusetts was its proud sponsor, and its supporters openly declared their intentions.

A barrage of Republican riders

This year's riders are not exactly secrets - legislation must be proposed and enacted in the open - but neither have their sponsors called much attention to them.

Whoever those sponsors may be. In almost every case, these riders come out of the committee process with only the notation "Chairman's mark," to indicate their provenance.

The other big difference between then and now is in the numbers. In the not-too-distant past, there would be a much-discussed rider or two every year, and one would not be shocked to learn that here and there a Democratic congressman quietly sneaked one in to provide some preference to a local industry. Even adding a few of these, in a typical year there weren't too many riders to count on the usual number of fingers.

Now there are 30 - count 'em - 30 - riders to the Interior, Defense and Transportation appropriations bills alone, and every one of them deals with natural resource or environmental matters, mostly in the West. Here are what a few would do:

* Allow helicopters to land in wilderness areas;

* Increase logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest by 40 percent;

* Allow commercial fishing in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park;

* Stop reintroduction of grizzly bears in Idaho's Bitterroot Wilderness (HCN, 10/27/97);

* Prohibit prescribed burning of underbrush in national forests until all trees in an area have been logged;

* Prohibit the Forest Service from charging full market rents for vacation homes in Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest (HCN, 11/10/97);

* Terminate the Columbia River Basin Ecosystem Plan (HCN, 9/19/94).

It would be an exaggeration to say that all the riders together are an attempt to accomplish piecemeal the broader weakening of environmental laws the Republicans tried and failed to do in 1995. It would not be a gross exaggeration.

As one might note, a disproportionate number of these riders deal with Alaska, which happens to be the home of the chairmen of the Resource Committees, Frank Murkowski in the Senate and Don Young in the House. Young recently explained his basic belief in the matter of public lands by questioning their bona fides.

"I don't see any justification for the federal government owning land," he said, "other than the Statue of Liberty and maybe a few parks, maybe a few refuges. But to just own land and do nothing with it, I think, is a disservice to the Constitution."

He did not indicate which provision of the Constitution was being disserved. Nor did he propose the traditional remedy for constitutional questions - a legal challenge. No one, so far as I know, has taken the Organic Act, the Taylor Grazing Act or the Wilderness Act to court. Perhaps Rep. Young should so proceed.

In search of a tough-guy Democrat

There appears to be nothing unconstitutional about the many riders which came out of the Young and Murkowski committees, so any effort to block them will have to rest on conventional political tactics. The preferred tactic for opponents is to focus on the Senate, which returns to work in early September, and where they hope some cooperative Democrat will propose an "omnibus strike amendment" knocking out all the riders in one swoop.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle's choice for this role was Max Baucus of Montana, who demurred because he quietly supports one or two of the riders. So environmentalists have recruited John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is thinking of running for president and would like to make new friends. Kerry is a thoughtful man. Kerry is not a decisive man. His office said last week that some Democratic senator or senators would move to knock out the riders, but just which one or ones remained to be decided. Assuming that someone can be found to make the motion, it might succeed. Republican moderates are wary of casting votes aptly described as anti-environmental. To encourage this sentiment, the Wilderness Society recently released results of a poll showing that most voters oppose the use of riders in general and the specific proposals in these riders.

The poll, taken by the reputable firm of Lake Sosin Snell Perry & Associates, is of unquestionable accuracy but dubious significance. The average voter doesn't know what a rider is (respondents had to be told) and few of them know about these riders, their local newspapers having been indifferent to the issue, which involves no sex, at least as far as is known.

So preventing these riders from becoming law may require a presidential veto. President Clinton has vetoed appropriations bills over riders before, and won the ensuing political battles. But those riders dealt with Medicare, Medicaid and education, matters closer to his heart than Western land use, for which he has but moderate passion.

Speaking of the president's passions, though, he seems to be, as the alert reader might have noticed, in an interesting political situation right now, one in which it might do him some good to stand up and fight over an issue on which the majority is likely to be on his side. If he's looking for a good fight, here it is.

His instincts, however, are to negotiate in such circumstances, perhaps getting the Republican leadership to knock out some of the riders, thereby allowing him to tell his supporters that he did the best he could and that they had best continue to support him considering the alternative.

Bill Clinton, in short, is neither Shane nor Clint Eastwood's unnamed tough-guy preacher in Pale Rider, a character who virtuously rejected the lovely teenager who wanted him to make love to her.

But not her mother. They spent a passionate night together, next door to her nice but wimpy fiancé, just before Clint went out and killed all the bad guys. Sometimes even a bad movie can tell us more about the complexity of life than today's newspaper can.

Jon Margolis visits Washington, D.C., frequently from his home in Vermont.