Clinton's budget blows off a wilder West


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Teddy Roosevelt was in town the other day, arguing that the country is short-changing its parks and forests.

No, this is not a time warp. This was Theodore Roosevelt IV of New York, an investment banker, a conservationist and - best of all - a Republican.

It was a nice touch, having the 26th president's great-grandson lead a delegation of environmental leaders into a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to argue for a 4.6 percent increase in funding for public lands and wildlife management.

It meant that they were asking more of Lott than they were getting from President Clinton, whose budget calls for no increase in the $12.4 billion spent this year for public lands.

In fact, as Clinton envisions it, the Interior Department would get $200 billion less from taxpayers, but that much and more would be made up from more oil royalties, a 5 percent mining royalty and higher fees at national parks, among other hikes. Clinton also wants timber companies to pay for their logging roads in the national forests, which would raise $55 million.

So it was not symbolically insignificant that Lott met with the environmentalists, and for more than an hour. Lott's predecessor, Bob Dole (remember him?) had never agreed to such a gathering, perhaps for symbolic political reasons of his own.

Not that Lott's welcome was enthusiastic. He complained, according to a few of the participants, that the environmental movement seemed to have become "a wing of the Democratic Party," an observation which cannot be dismissed as frivolous. Nonetheless, a civil conversation took place, and such are the ways of Washington that civil conversations can lead to civil agreements.

Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that such a meeting might have been more productive had it been held several weeks earlier with the president and his top natural-resource advisors, whose party is the one to which the environmentalists have supposedly attached themselves, and in which they could be expected to have some clout.

Congress ultimately decides where to spend the money, but what emerges in February is officially "The Executive Budget" and unofficially the bargaining-opener. For everything nonmilitary, the president's request becomes the de facto ceiling.

"Both sides have to give," said Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Budget Committee. The only way Clinton and the Democrats can give is by spending less where the environmentalists want to spend more.

So why didn't the 150 environmental groups prepare their case earlier? Well, one reason is that there are 150 of them. Did you ever try to put together an evening at a restaurant for 15 people? Multiply that by 10 and remember that policy preferences are more complicated than food preferences, and you get some idea of the difficulty.

Environmentalists also remain captive to the delusion that all they have to do to prevail is to make a case on the merits. Facilities in the national parks are ill-maintained. The natural resource agencies lack the small amounts of money needed to purchase land at their edges (and sometimes within them) where development threatens the essential purpose of the facility. But the merits of a case alone never carried the day here, and they are less likely to do so under the current situation, which can be summed up in four words: There ain't no money.

Sure, it's a $1.69 trillion budget, and the "Green Group" which met with Lott, and the next day with Speaker Newt Gingrich, only wants another $570 million. But most of that $1.69 trillion is committed to Social Security, Medicare and the other entitlements, or to interest on the debt. Take away the defense budget, which, for reasons too complicated and too depressing to consider, falls into a separate political category, and you're left with only about $400 billion for everything else - from economists in the Bureau of Labor Statistics to rangers in Yellowstone Park.

These days, everything else also includes the $250 billion of cuts over five years needed to balance the budget by 2002, which has become a political imperative. But, say the environmentalists, we have found the money - in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which brings in $900 million a year, only $148 million of which was spent last year - and here's a list of wasteful items to cut.

The day after TR and his allies met on Capitol Hill, a consortium of environmental, health and fiscal organizations presented its annual "Green Scissors' report, a list of 57 federal projects, the scuttling of which could save $36 billion over a five-year period. But most of that money would come from abolishing subsidized grazing and the 1872 Mining Law, which this Congress will not abolish.

Besides, none of this means that there is enough money. Spending all the Conservation Fund money would increase the deficit by a few hundred million, or require Congress to find that few hundred million by cutting other programs. Do environmentalists want Congress to roll back the 6.3 percent increase Clinton proposed for the Environmental Protection Agency? Probably not. In fact, most of them probably don't want to take the money from the $1.2 billion he proposed for rebuilding inner-city schools, or the $21 billion he wants to spend to ease the potential burden on the poor of last year's welfare bill.

That's the way it goes these days. More money for Worthy Project A can only come from Worthy Project B. And to those who might ask why Clinton couldn't cut defense or increase taxes on the wealthy, he did. Not by much, to be sure, but his budget gives the Pentagon $7 billion less and proposes $34.3 billion of tax increases over five years, most of it from relatively affluent folks.

In general, though, this president is going to dance with the ladies who brung him. His margin of victory came from middle- and upper middle-income suburban women. Their priorities are education, health care for their children and their aging parents, clean air and water, safety in the streets and fiscal prudence.

It isn't that they don't agree with environmentalists about national parks, forests, recreation areas and the like. The president did not brag on setting aside the Escalante-Grand Staircase Monument and supporting the California National Parks in the absence of poll results revealing how popular they were. But these are people who go to such places every five years or so at best. Public lands are simply not a priority for them.

They aren't for Clinton, either. One of the few credible stories in presidential advisor Dick Morris' book is the one about how miffed Clinton was after Morris convinced him to take an outdoor vacation to appeal to the recreationist impulse among swing voters. He pouted because he wanted to be in a fancy resort hotel and play golf.

The president is probably a lost cause. The "soccer moms," as they were yclept last year, are not. Shrewd political strategists could try to poke public lands into the minds of these suburbanites. In the long run, it would be more productive than meetings with the Senate majority leader. As Teddy Roosevelt IV's great-grandfather well knew, the surest route to political success is public enthusiasm.

Jon Margolis regularly gets inside the Beltway for High Country News.