WASHINGTON, D.C. — It looks as though the Endangered Species Act is not going to be eviscerated this year. Neither will the National Environmental Policy Act. On second thought, the government will not sell off millions of acres of the public domain for as little as a thousand dollars an acre. For the nonce, at least, oil rigs will stay out of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and there might not even be any more of them going up in the Gulf of Mexico.
Such are the results of what one environmental lobbyist called "the dodge-the-bullet 109th Congress," in which this phrase-maker and his colleagues managed to stave off the most acute assaults on the laws and regulations protecting the air, the water, the land, and the non-human creatures residing therein and thereon.
But hold the champagne, and not only because the enviros did not win all their battles. To begin with, they won a few of them barely, in ways not necessarily replicable next time. What may be more troubling is that at least one of those victories exposes a strategic division on the left side of the political divide that threatens to upset the alliance between environmentalists and their principal political ally — the Democratic Party.
Besides, while Congress did not do everything the Bush administration or the natural resources producers wanted, neither did it stop the administration from doing a great deal of what it could do without asking Congress. Using executive power, the Bush administration achieved its first real breach of the national forests’ Roadless Area Protection Rule — invoked by President Clinton in 2000 and un-invoked ever since by George W. Bush — when logging was begun in Oregon’s largest roadless area over the objections of Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski. In August, the Forest Service leased 22,000 acres of roadless forest in western Colorado and eastern Utah.
Despite some successes in keeping drill rigs out of sensitive areas, "the oil and gas industry really is riding high," says David Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society. But the real problem, according to Alberswerth and other green activists, is that the two most radical anti-environmental proposals — gutting the Endangered Species Act and selling off huge swaths of federal land — came very close to becoming law. They passed the House of Representatives. In fact, were it not for one man, the bill to weaken the Endangered Species Act might now be law. And that one man is a member of an endangered species himself: He’s a green Republican.
A strategic split
Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, arguably the last liberal Republican extant, is chairman of the Fisheries, Wildlife and Water Subcommittee of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. When the ESA bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Pombo of California passed the House by two votes last November, it went to Chafee’s subcommittee, where … well, nothing happened. Chairmen can do that.
But Chafee might not be chairman for long, because he might not be a senator for long. He’s being challenged in the Sept. 12 primary by Stephen Laffey, who is backed by national conservative groups. Should Chafee survive, he will face Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who leads him in the latest polling.
Here is where the Democrats and the environmentalists may come to grief. The major green groups are supporting Chafee.
"We’re very comfortable with his record," says Chuck Porcari, the director of communications for the League of Conservation Voters.
Until very recently, this was generally accepted interest-group politics — you supported the folks who supported you, regardless of party. Of late, though, an increasing number of Democratic operatives have rebelled. What would really benefit the cause of environmentalism (or other liberal interests), they say, would be Democratic majorities in Congress. Chafee might vote green, but he will help choose a leadership which does not.
This more partisan, but equally pragmatic, point of view is being aggressively pushed by the liberal bloggers who are increasingly influential among Democrats, if not as influential as they think they are.
The strategy could backfire, however, if Chafee gets the boot but the Republicans hang onto the majority. In that scenario, global-warming denier James Inhofe, R-Okla., probably keeps the chairmanship of the full committee — and at best, Chafee’s committee falls to a less reliably green Republican.
A sudden change of heart
Chafee, of course, is not the only reason Congress has not accepted the more far-reaching attacks on environmental protection. President Bush’s approval rating is stuck in the mid-30s, and a Los Angeles Times poll of early August offered strong evidence that his policies on global warming and public lands are contributing to his political doldrums.
With the president weakened, individual Republicans are free — indeed forced — to leave the party policy reservation and fend for themselves. They can read polls, too, and they are listening more carefully to their local constituencies, some of whom are unhappy with what the administration is doing.
This new coalition of the unhappy is hardly limited to environmentalists or their usual liberal allies. Ranchers object to the extent of oil and gas drilling on their land and the public lands nearby. Hunters and anglers have begun to notice degraded habitat. Motel and restaurant owners have discovered that having protected land nearby brings more travelers to the area.
Thus Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, facing a strong opponent this fall, recreates himself as protector of the Rocky Mountain Front. And thus none other than Richard Pombo lets three wilderness bills slip through his House committee, albeit with concessions for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The Republican-run House approved all three bills in July (HCN, 8/21/06: Wilderness Cliffhanger).
The wilderness spree was particularly surprising, given that Republicans in the House, where the leadership rules with a stronger hand, are both truer believers and less worried about re-election; most have arranged their district lines so artfully that they have few Democratic constituents, guaranteeing themselves safe seats. Or, at least, so they thought until the latest polls came out, showing a double-digit Democratic lead in overall congressional preference.
Who knows? The green Republican might just join the ivory-billed woodpecker among the supposedly extinct species reportedly seen flitting through the trees.
Jon Margolis writes about Washington from Barton, Vermont.