A deal is no longer a deal in Washington


WASHINGTON, D.C. - There was never a whole lot of certainty in these parts, but not long ago you could count on a couple of things. One was that a deal was a deal. The other was that once you had killed something, it stayed dead.

No longer. Remember Bob Dole's "takings" bill, the one which would have overturned several hundred years of Anglo-American jurisprudence by declaring a regulation almost the same thing as seizure by eminent domain?

It was killed very dead in the last Congress. But, like Jason in those horror movies, it has emerged from the swamp. Legislation sponsored by Republican Reps. Elton Gallegly of California and Lamar Smith of Texas would shift local zoning disputes from localities to the federal courts. This would allow landowners to sue the government in Federal Claims Court, which would be granted the extraordinary power to invalidate federal laws and regulations.

What? You say you thought Republicans were for "devoluting" power to the states? Only when it serves their interests.

To be sure, these bills are not likely to pass. Neither is Sen. Larry Craig's new forestry proposal, stripped of its controversial (and unworkable) provision which would have allowed the Forest Service to give some of its land to the states, but not stripped of its inclination to make logging the first among equal uses of the national forests.

Still, it's another thing that defenders of nature in the West (and the East, for that matter) have to worry about, and fight against, long after they thought they had dispatched it to some legislative netherworld. They even have a few new things to worry about, some of them more symbolic than substantive. Take the House Resolution (not a bill, just a policy statement) sponsored by Resource Committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska. It urges more logging in the national forests, not to help the timber industry - perish the thought - but to curb global warming.

Don't laugh. And don't muddle the discussion by pointing out that many of this resolution's co-sponsors insist that global warming is a sham. There is a scientific study which holds that because young trees use more carbon dioxide than old trees, cutting down the old ones and letting new ones grow will let the forests absorb more CO2.

The study, however, is less than overwhelmingly persuasive. Only 17 pages (minus contents, preface and bibliography), it is largely a recapitulation of earlier studies, many of them by one of the three co-authors, all professors at the University of Washington in Seattle.

And to say the least, it has not been endorsed by other scholars, some of whom can't find it. Mark Harmon of Oregon State's Department of Forest Science reported that "not a single scientist I know in this field has even heard of the study (which) evidently ... has not received peer review or been published in a creditable scientific journal."

Picky, picky.

The resolution is likely to pass the House.

As to the done deal which comes undone, consider the combined deal to buy off the mining company which wanted to drill for gold on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, and to buy off the logging firm on the verge of chopping down one of the last great privately owned redwood forests in California.

Both companies agreed last year that they'd take the money instead of the resources, and after a good deal of pulling and tugging, the Clinton administration and congressional leaders agreed to get the money - $65 million for the mine and $250 million for the forest - from the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund. Senior Republicans in both houses then agreed to spend $699 million from the fund, less than it brings in every year (the balance reduces the federal deficit) but far more than has been appropriated in recent years.

So everybody was on board - the companies, the administration, the environmentalists, congressional bigwigs. Even the woman who owned patented claims in the New World Mine area finally signed an agreement with the mining company putting her land under an environmental easement. All wrapped up and tied with a ribbon, right?

Wrong. Not all the Republicans on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee had been party to the deal, and a few decided to play games. Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Regula of Ohio wanted some of that money to go for maintenance and operations, not land acquisition. The congressmen from the affected areas, neither of whom holds a safe seat, wanted ... well, they wanted something to take back to the home folks. And some Republicans just wanted to harass the Clinton administration.

There are two other reasons why Republicans are acting this way, and why they are bringing back the takings issues, filing doomed forestry bills, and generally making trouble, especially over natural resource issues.

First, they believe in what they're doing. And second, they're worried. If the 1998 congressional elections were held this week, the Republicans would probably lose control of the House, and they know it. So they're scrounging around for some issues to fight about, and they're having trouble finding any. A few months ago, Speaker Newt Gingrich promised a major battle over guaranteeing the minimum wage and other protections to welfare recipients in "workfare" public service jobs. Early in October, the Republicans dropped that idea. They're looking for others.

For all those reasons, and with no protest from ranking Democrat David Obey of Wisconsin (who is generally miffed at Clinton), the House Subcommittee took the Headwaters and New World Mine money out of the budget. But the Senate didn't, meaning the whole mess got bumped over to a House-Senate Conference Committee - which settled it by appropriating the money but stipulating that it couldn't be spent until Congress had passed specific authorizing legislation. The administration didn't like that unprecedented requirement, and threatened a veto.

Newt Gingrich didn't like it either because there wasn't much in it for the two shaky congressmen, Frank Riggs of California and Rick Hill of Montana.

Back to the drawing board, and at this writing (no guarantees things won't change again by the time of your reading), the conferees have a new plan. Out went the requirement for congressional authorization. In its place is a more flexible provision prohibiting the president from spending the Headwaters Forest or New World Mine money for 180 days, during which Congress can look into the matters if it chooses.

In addition, $10 million goes to Humboldt County, Calif., and $12 million goes for reconstruction and maintenance of the Bear Tooth Highway in southern Montana. Riggs and Hill now have some pork to wave around when they go home.

So is the deal now done? Not necessarily. Congress might use those 180 days to hold hearings. Furthermore, the latest version calls for giving the Interior secretary some direction on how to handle the habitat conservation plans in the works for the California forests near the land to be bought. Depending on what that direction is, California environmentalists might be displeased. California environmentalists are not without clout.

The wise citizen would be advised to wait until the entire appropriations bill is passed and signed into law before being certain of the outcome. Around here, a deal hasn't been a deal since back in the old days, when the dead had the good grace to stay dead.

Jon Margolis covers Washington more or less regularly for High Country News.

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