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 Service.


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 package.


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 health.


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 developers.


Many of the budget riders were attached to the spending bills without hearings or public comment.


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 competing interests.


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 procedures.


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 areas.


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.


Eventually, 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 value.


* Timber sales in Arizona and New Mexico would be exempt from endangered species law protections.


* Many large agricultural corporations in the West would be allowed to pay lower amounts of money for federal water, costing the federal treasury millions.


From the Interior Department appropriation agreed on by House and Senate:


* A 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 Land Management.


* 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 surveys.


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.


Perhaps most 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 budget.


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 supporters."


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 contended.


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 provisions.


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 them.


"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." "


* Philip Shabecoff





This column begins Philip Shabecoff's coverage of Washington, D.C., for High Country News.