This year, Congress slunk into Washington

  WASHINGTON, D.C. - Even without the small complication bestriding the opening of the 105th Congress, the difference between it and its predecessor could be discerned by a quick look at the schedules.


Two years ago, the ebullient Republican majority of the House of Representatives came to town with revolutionary zeal, determined to remake the government, if not the world, in 100 days.


This year, the House convened to organize itself on Jan. 7. Then it recessed until the Inauguration on Jan. 20, when it plans to recess again until mid-February.


The schedule is not the only sign of change. Prior to the convening of the 104th, Republicans in both houses boldly announced their most extravagant plans. In the matter of Western natural resources, for instance, they proclaimed their commitment to give federal land to the states, or at least to the cattle ranchers, and to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act.


This time they were quieter. The most noise came from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who wrote a piece for the New York Times in November under the title, "Nature is not a liberal plot." McCain not only cited Theodore Roosevelt as he urged his party to rediscover its conservationist tradition, he cited Morris Udall and their joint effort to protect more Arizona land as wilderness, a word recently uttered by Republicans only as expletive.


It is true McCain's League of Environmental Voters score was 11 and he's moving to the center as he prepares to run for president. Still, he can see which way the wind blows.


But winds in Washington get diverted by counter-winds, artificial barriers and pockets of hot air. Despite McCain and public opinion, the natural resource committees of both houses will still be chaired by men who are on record saying that if nature isn't a liberal plot, nature-lovers are.


Alaskans Frank Murkowski and Don Young still chair the Senate and House Resource Committees and remain committed to maximum feasible clearcutting in the Tongass National Forest. Their colleague, Sen. Ted Stevens, whose manner is more sedate but whose policies are similar, has replaced the moderate Mark Hatfield as chairman of Senate Appropriations, a position of considerable leverage.


Then there's that complication concerning the speaker and how he had to scramble to keep his job after copping a plea to ethics violations. Most of the scrambling took place on the phone, as Newt Gingrich called every one of the 227 Republicans in Congress. The content of these calls has not been revealed, but it would not be unprecedented if some of them included ... well, "understandings."


If so, was more troth plighted to the likes of Richard Pombo and Jim Hansen, allies of the wise-use movement, or to the likes of Sherwood Boehlert and Wayne Gilchrist, the Republican environmentalists who are better organized and more alert than they were two years ago?


One does not know. One does know that Gingrich's two closest allies in his fight to keep his job were Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both Texans, both friendly to the extractive industries. We also know that even before acknowledging his violations of the ethics rules, Gingrich filled most of the majority vacancies on the House Resources Committee with Western freshmen Republicans likely to be as fierce as those they replaced in support of more mining, logging and grazing.


Still, beyond the internal politics of the House, there are least two factors which are likely to restrain the anti-environmentalist wing of the GOP. One is the election results, which largely confirmed all those polls indicating that a very substantial majority of the electorate wants clean air, clean water and open space.


Then there's Bill Clinton.


Well, there might be Bill Clinton. One never knows with Bill Clinton, but there are hints that he read the exit polls, too. Since his re-election, he has allowed or encouraged his underlings to issue tougher environmental regulations.


First, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would phase out Nationwide Permit 26, under which developers got quick approval to drain one- to 10-acre parcels of wetlands. Then the Environmental Protection Agency got tougher on the way states enforce anti-pollution laws, threatening to step in when the states were too accommodating to polluters.


The timing and tone of these announcements made one wonder whether the administration was hoping Republicans would complain about them, and pick a fight on terrain favorable to Clinton and the Democrats. If so, the Republicans were not cooperating. If they were unhappy, they were smart enough to keep quiet about it.


The Republican strategy was to keep quiet in general. That explains the House schedule. The GOP has decided to let the President make the first move on the question which will dominate this session of Congress - the budget, and the commitment (or obsession?) to bring it into balance by 2002.


Even if that balance turns out to be a chimera, the struggle to achieve it will have real consequences, some of them, ironically, of potential benefit to the natural resources of the West. One target of most Democrats and some Republicans is "corporate welfare," and some lawmakers in both parties include roads in the national forests and mining on the public land in their definition of that term.


The existence of a budgetary-environmental nexus brings a new player into the world of natural resource politics "lanky, self-absorbed John Kasich of Ohio, arguably the only Republican in Congress who digs alternative rock, and a power as chairman of the House Budget Committee. Kasich hates government spending so much that he is one of the few Republicans who thinks the Pentagon is profligate.


He also fancies himself an environmentalist. So while he is hardly in the moderate bloc, he might ally himself with the moderates on issues such as mining and logging.


On the other hand, the Western conservatives are not giving up. At the annual meeting in November of the wise-use Western States Coalition, Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said he would introduce a new National Forest Management Act which, among other things, would allow the Forest Service to contract out forest management to the states.


Could such a bill pass? Not on its own. Neither could stand-alone bills to order more clearcutting in the Tongass, weaken the Endangered Species Act or mess with the Escalante-Grand Staircase Monument designation.


But this does not mean that bits and pieces of them could not become law. Congress is not divine, but as the Almighty is said to do, it moves in mysterious ways its wonders (and outrages) to perform. There is the technique of attaching to an appropriations bill a rider which prohibits an agency from enforcing certain regulations. There is the rescission which eliminates funds for a specific program. There is the amendment to a popular (and seemingly unrelated) measure which suspends enforcement of a long-standing law. Attach one of these to an important bill, and watch Clinton squirm.


And maybe Newt Gingrich, too. The speaker is still in his office, but he is not out of the woods, and who knows which way he will turn after special counsel James Cole outlines the case against him at a public hearing later this month. One thing to watch for is some intra-party squabbling between the leadership and the resource committees of both houses. It may be in the speaker's interest to be perceived as light lime, if not exactly green, in political hue.


Pull up a seat. It could be a good show.





Jon Margolis watches Washington, D.C., for High Country News.