WASHINGTON, D.C. - Right-wing conservatives, who have long argued that the nation would be best served if public lands and resources were in private hands, believed that their hour had come.
On Sept. 19, a bill reached the floor of
House of Representatives to create a commission recommending the
sale of selected lands now managed by the National Park
Privatization enthusiasts were taken
briefly aback when the bill was soundly defeated on the House floor
by a vote of 231 to 180.
But not to worry. Within
the day the measure was attached by Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., as a
rider to the House budget reconciliation bill, the massive omnibus
spending bill that includes everything from the welfare budget to
subsidies for agriculture. The only way it could be stopped would
be if President Clinton vetoed the entire budget
The parks closure provision is one of
dozens of examples of how the leadership of the 104th Congress is
using the budget and appropriations process to roll back laws
enacted to protect lands, resources and the public
Two days after the parks closure vote,
House and Senate conferees agreed on an appropriations bill for the
Interior Department that critics labeled outrageous. Spokespeople
for environmental groups charged the bill could nullify programs
protecting endangered species and open most public lands to
Many of the budget riders were
attached to the spending bills without hearings or public
That is not the way Congress has
operated in the past. New legislation and major changes in existing
laws and national policy normally go through an exhaustive process.
A bill is introduced by one or more members of the House or Senate.
Hearings are held on Capitol Hill and often in other parts of the
country. Then the bill is re-drafted. Finally, after months or even
years, the bill is voted on by the House and Senate. Only after
passage is money budgeted for the law and then appropriated so that
a department or agency can implement the law. The process is marked
by constant negotiation, compromise, and the accommodation of
But now, the Republican
right, a minority in Congress that controls the legislative
process, is using the budget to bypass this process. In part, it is
doing this out of expediency; it lacks the votes to pass
authorizing bills or to override a presidential veto. But the
strategy is also intended to show contempt for traditional
In one sense, it is an old story.
Democrats used the budget for years to block the Interior
Department under Republican administrations from selling offshore
oil- and gas-drilling leases in certain
The difference today is scale. If enacted,
the provisions studding the budget bills would not modify a statute
here and there; they would cut away a major part of the federal
edifice built up over years.
The president has
pledged to veto the Interior Appropriations bill if it reaches his
desk in its present form. He is also likely to veto the present
budget reconciliation package.
however, the White House and the Congress will have to negotiate a
federal budget, and many of the changes embodied in the Republican
package are likely to survive. Collectively, those changes could
transform the face of the West.
Here is a
sampling of the changes.
In the House and/or
Senate reconciliation bill:
* A moratorium
imposed on the issuance of mining patents would be repealed and
royalties would be required only for the surface value of the
public lands. Other pending legislation would require the payment
of a small royalty for minerals under the surface but it would
represent only a tiny fraction of the actual
* Timber sales in Arizona and New Mexico
would be exempt from endangered species law
* Many large agricultural
corporations in the West would be allowed to pay lower amounts of
money for federal water, costing the federal treasury
From the Interior Department
appropriation agreed on by House and Senate:
moratorium would be imposed on the new listing of endangered
species and designating their critical habitat.
The Mojave National Preserve in California, created in the waning
days of the 103rd Congress, would be turned over to the Bureau of
* The National Biological Survey
would be turned over to the U.S. Geological Survey and strict
limits would be placed on its ability to conduct wildlife
Among the other major budgetary
decisions that would affect the West is a sharp cutback in the
budget of the Environmental Protection Agency - 15 percent in the
Senate, 25 percent in the House - which would curtail monitoring of
air and water pollution and sharply limit the agency's ability to
enforce environmental laws.
Cuts in the proposed
budget for developing efficient and renewable sources of energy
will require the country to import an estimated additional 45
million barrels a year by 2000 and lose the country $14 billion
annually in estimated energy savings by business and consumers,
according to the Energy Department.
inexplicable for politicians who came to power complaining that
environmental regulation was based on inadequate science was the 25
percent cutback in basic scientific research proposed for the
Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., charged that
many of the budget riders are part of "the Republican leadership's
sneak attack on our environment and resources, while others are
old-fashioned sweetheart deals for their political friends and
Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo.,
considered by no one to be a militant green, concedes that the
House budget proposals for the environment are "radical." But, he
said in a telephone interview, environmental legislation in past
Democratic congresses was dictated by "radical environmentalists."
After the House proposals are modified in negotiations with the
Senate and the White House they will move the nation's
environmental policy back to the center, he
In fact, only hours after McInnis made
his comments on Sept. 29, the House voted to reject the
House-Senate conference report on the Interior Appropriation,
largely because of its giveaway mining royalty
McInnis saw no impropriety in using
riders to achieve sweeping policy goals. Under the Democrats, he
said, amendments to legislation could only be offered by a few
"privileged" members of the majority leadership. "Now Congress is
under new management and we have an open process."
But McInnis was outraged when Rep. James V.
Hansen, R-Utah, used the "open process' and a budget rider to force
the Forest Service to sell ski areas to the companies that own the
ski area permits. A number of major ski areas are in McInnis'
district and he was angry that he had not even been told about the
rider. He said that he had a "tense" meeting with Alaska Rep. Don
Young, chairman of the House Resources Committee, and obtained a
promise that Colorado, at least, would be exempted from the ski
area sale requirement. At present, the idea has been dropped by
both the House and Senate.
At a recent White
House news conference, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called the
Republican assault on environmental protection through the budget
"a gross perversion of the democratic process' and said it was
intended chiefly to pay back the lobbyists who supported
"What motivates them is the money-changers
in the temple," Babbitt said. "The lobbyists are saying "it's our
money that put you in power and it's our turn and here's our menu."
This column begins
Philip Shabecoff's coverage of Washington, D.C., for High Country