When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, everyone expected attacks on environmental laws and programs. And they came.
But now, with just days left until the
end of the 104th Congress' first year, the anti-environment flood
has been slowed. With the exception of the salvage logging
legislation signed by President Clinton this summer, the most
radical proposals have disappeared from the table. The Republican
party is divided over its environmental agenda and President
Clinton is brandishing the veto threat with fervor, having
discovered the environment as a potent theme for his 1996
According to Washington
observers, Republicans overreached. House Speaker Newt Gingrich
told reporters in November his party had "mishandled the
environment all spring and summer."
undisciplined GOP opened the doors wide to industry lobbyists, says
Ben McNitt of the National Wildlife Federation, and they rushed in
with a wish list a mile long.
"There is broad
public support for re-examining regulation to make it more
streamlined and to balance the budget," McNitt says. "But some
Republicans loaded up the process with all kinds of bells and
whistles and goofball ideas. The thing got out of control."
Others are more
"Republicans are aware that their
environmental policies are doing them no good. But like a binge
eater who knows he should stop, they can't," wrote pundit Jessica
Matthews in a Nov. 27 Washington Post opinion piece. "... the
Republicans could have undone much more environmental law if they'd
reached for much less."
Signs of the backlash
became obvious in September, when moderate Republicans broke from
their conservative colleagues on the Endangered Species Act (HCN,
11/13/95). Then in November, the House twice rejected an Interior
spending bill, largely because it contained language lifting a
moratorium on land sales to mining companies with claims on public
lands. Scores of Republicans joined Democrats to swamp the
On Nov. 2, Reps. Sherwood Boehlert, R-NY,
and Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, led a bipartisan effort to pass a measure
instructing a conference committee to remove 17 riders limiting
Environmental Protection Agency enforcement of existing
protections. When the conference committee retained a few of them,
the House rejected the measure 216-208, with 25 Republicans
crossing party lines.
The turn of events has left
environmentalists optimistic for the first time in almost a year.
But no one is willing to say the war is
Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of
the Sierra Club, says the moderating of the Republican rhetoric is
not always matched by action. Before the second vote on the
Interior Appropriations bill, Gingrich sent a letter to all House
members urging them to retain accelerated logging on Alaska's
Tongass National Forest and allow the sale of public lands to
mining companies that had patented their claims. "The worst thing
we can do now is let our guard down," says
Budget bills still contain much of the
Republican agenda. Big ticket items, such as the proposal to open
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, still lie
within the massive budget reconciliation bill. Though President
Clinton has vowed to veto the measure, many of the proposals could
slip through when Clinton and the Republicans strike their eventual
In fact, most observers predict at
least parts of the anti-environment agenda will stick. But time may
be running out on the revolution.
"When you come
into power, you've got to do things fast or else everything just
gets gummed up," says Jim Lyon of the Mineral Policy Center.
"That's what (former President Ronald) Reagan and (former Interior
Secretary) Watt discovered. They've (the Republicans) got to do
things now or else much of their agenda won't happen."
For more information about the environmental
measures contained in the budget bills, contact the National
Wildlife Federation, which recently completed a 42-page report,
Funding Worth Fighting For. The Federation can be reached at 1400
Sixteenth Street, N., Washington, D.C. 20036