WASHINGTON, D.C. - Regular visitors to this department may recall earlier reminders that, however distinct Westerners deem themselves and their region, both are nonetheless parts of a greater whole - to wit, the United States of America.
Obvious though this might be, occasional repetition seemed necessary, not only as an antidote to what my late flying companion, Spiro Agnew, might have called the natterings of the Neo-Nullificationists, but also to rectify the conceits of the Western Neo-Romantic: Picture a Missoulian browsing one of those regional poetry quarterlies in a gourmet coffee shop - convinced that he/she is a citizen of a realm that excludes Pennsylvania or Iowa.
He/she is not, as we all learned again late last month, when impending policy decisions affecting the West were thrown all a-tumble by the resolve of one rather gentle fellow from the northeastern corner of the above-referenced U.S. of A.
Hard by the shores of Lake Champlain, some 1,650 miles east of the Front Range, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont stood at a lectern and announced that he would no longer be a Republican.
New score. Instead of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote for the GOP, there will be, officially, 50 Democrats and 49 Republicans. But politically, it will be 51-to-49 as independent Jeffords votes with the Democrats to reorganize the Senate. Instead of being split evenly between the parties, committees will probably have a one-vote Democratic edge, as well as Democratic chairmen. Their staffs will be run by Democratic policy-wonks and troublemakers instead of Republicans.
Do not be, depending on your political proclivities, overjoyed or despondent. The world has not been turned upside down. On many substantive matters, especially those concerning the use, abuse and preservation of natural resources, Jeffords was voting like a Democrat anyway. The same hundred folks remain in the Senate, with three or four Democrats often voting with the Republicans, and three or four Republicans with the Dems. Any bill that would have passed had it been debated on the Senate floor last month would pass this month and next.
Ah, but will that bill get to the Senate floor, the keys to which will be held by Tom Daschle of South Dakota, not Trent Lott of Mississippi? If the political world has not been turned upside down, it has been pretty well knocked about.
The new moderates
Want proof? Check out what happened at the Consumer Product Safety Commission on May 30. Unanimously, with Republican Mary Sheila Gall changing her vote, the commission voted to draft new safety regulations for baby bath seats. Gall's reversal was no mystery. Though she is on record opposing almost all regulations, President George W. Bush has nominated her to chair the commission, a nomination requiring Senate confirmation. First step is the Commerce Committee, now run by Democrats less hostile to regulation. All of a sudden, Gall wishes to appear quite the moderate.
As does Bush. The week following the Jeffords announcement found the president posing with sequoia trees in California, telling us all that they were alive when King John signed what Bush called "the Magna Carter." Back in Washington, his associates were planning more appearances with Democrats and greater emphasis on the conciliatory side of Bush policies.
For now, no one should expect much change in those policies, some of which do not need congressional approval. While any proposal to drill oil or gas wells in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge seems dead or in abeyance, plans to open the Rocky Mountain Front, the Badger-Two Medicine area of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, or the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to oil, gas and coal development are not.
Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge needs the approval of Congress, so it must get to the Senate floor. Daschle said it won't. But increased energy production on most other public lands not specifically designated as wilderness only needs the approval of Interior Secretary Gale Norton or Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth or his boss, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. They all work for Bush. In the final analysis, they will do what he decides, or perhaps what he and Cheney decide, no matter who chairs the Senate committees.
The power to delay
But only in the abstract is their discretion unlimited, and around here policy decisions are not made in the abstract. They are made in a political context, which Jim Jeffords has changed. A committee chairman does not just get a gavel. He gets subpoena power. He who can investigate can influence public opinion, and therefore policy.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, incoming chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, has already announced he will open an investigation into the recent gasoline price increases. If history is any guide, such a probe will not reveal illegal activity on the part of the oil companies. It may reveal embarrassing activity.
So far, no one has announced similar investigations into, for instance, possible connections between campaign contributions and the companies likely to benefit from drilling on public land, or why the administration, the official defendant in the legal action against the Forest Service Roadless rule, has not vigorously defended it. Someone might.
For the most part, the committees that deal with Western issues will still be chaired by Westerners. But very different Westerners. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico replaces Frank Murkowski of Alaska at the helm of the Resource Committee, and its subcommittee on forest and public-land management will be headed by Ron Wyden of Oregon, not Larry Craig of Idaho. Jeffords will take from New Hampshire's crusty Robert Smith the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and over at the Appropriations Committee, the unsung but pivotal Interior subcommittee will no longer be headed by Montana conservative Republican Conrad Burns. His likely successor is Robert Byrd of West Virginia, hardly the favorite of environmental groups, but a moderate on any resource issue which does not directly concern coal.
In short, the president can still implement most of his energy and natural-resource policies affecting the West. It's just going to be harder. Another new score: U.S. Constitution one; Western Neo-Nullificationists and Neo-Romantics zero. It's one country.
Jon Margolis keeps score of the nation's political games from the sidelines in Barton, Vermont.
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Margolis