Thirty days left for politics, petulance

  • Cartoon: Quincy Library Bill as the Trojan Horse


WASHINGTON, D.C. - The year is almost over.

If you're computing the time between now and Dec. 31, broaden your horizons. We are talking here about the legislative year, which ends on Oct. 2, liberating congresspersons to return home to campaign.

Even subtracting weekends, this would leave almost 100 days for Congress its wonders to perform, but simple arithmetic is no basis for computing the legislative year. To begin with, most Mondays and Fridays don't count. And as good patriots, your lawmakers will celebrate the birth of the nation on the Fourth of July.

Until the 13th of July.

Then there's August. Occasional evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, senators and representatives are sane, and sane people don't like to hang around Washington in August. It's hot and muggy. Besides, there's work to be done back home, such as raising money for TV ads.

Finally, there are all those days when Congress is technically in session but doesn't do anything as blatant as pass bills. The members are not idle; they meet in committee, they see constituents, they huddle with staff, they raise money for TV ads. But they do not vote.

So there are only about 30 more days for Congress to do any good for, and/or harm to, the body politic, the economy or the natural world. From the perspective of a congressional leadership which claims to believe that government should do less, this situation is not without its advantages. Neither is it unwelcome to those who fear this congressional leadership will do more.

Less time to vote means less time for Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, both of Alaska, to slip in their bill to build a 30-mile road through the wilderness of the Izembeck National Wildlife Refuge, or another measure to give the University of Alaska 500,000 acres of public land.

(No, silly; the university doesn't need space for dorms or a new lab. It would make money off the land by developing it.)

Less time means fewer opportunities for legislation authorizing the Air Force to carpet-bomb Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands, or for Utah Republicans to move their "wilderness" bill which would designate some land as wilderness but allow dams, paved roads and transmission towers (see Hotline page 4). The result would be somewhat closer to wilderness than, say, the Paramus Shopping Mall in northern New Jersey, but not much.

With so little time, and with elections looming, anything which does get done is likely to be influenced by those two constants of congressional behavior - politics and petulance. By reliable report, for instance, Murkowski has let it be known that only if those Alaska bills become law will his committee vote on the confirmation of Interior Department officials, some of whom have been "acting" for so long they will be eligible for next year's Academy Awards.

Murkowski's ploy is not likely to work. Administration sources say those officials in Interior and the Forest Service can do their jobs just fine without confirmation.

Together, politics and petulance seem to be killing the Quincy Library bill. Lovers of irony might appreciate this impending failure of a process which envisioned replacing politics and petulance with conciliation and consensus on 2.5 million acres of California forest and the rivers that flow through them. That the process gave rise to some of the most contentious consensus ever seen only enhances the irony quotient (HCN, 9/29/97).

Still, as earlier chronicled in this space, an amended version of the plan sailed through the House, and with both California senators as co-sponsors and the president willing to sign it, how could it fail?

Politics and petulance, that's how.

First of all, the bill no longer has the support of both California senators, and on any matter which affects only one state, either of that state's senators customarily has a de facto veto power. Sen. Dianne Feinstein remains the chief sponsor. But Sen. Barbara Boxer now opposes the bill, even with environmental safeguards stronger than in the House version.

"She still likes the concept," said Sen. Boxer's spokesman, "but she's concerned about the (five-year) duration of the plan, the amount of acreage open to logging and the protection of ancient forests."

These are reasonable objections, but they were just as reasonable six months ago, when Boxer was a co-sponsor, raising the possibility that the senator, up for re-election in November, has been swayed by California environmentalists who oppose the Quincy Library plan and the process which produced it.

The politics here are straightforward. The Quincy plan seems to have more support than opposition in its home territory north of Sacramento. But that territory is sparsely populated. In the Bay Area, the members and officials of the big environmental groups are four-square against the bill. There aren't all that many of them either, but they are precisely the folks whose enthusiasm, organizational skills, and money any California Democrat needs to win an election.

Besides, Boxer's new position offers her an easy way to disagree with Feinstein, who issued a statement expressing her "disappointment" when her colleague came out against the bill. Aides in both offices insisted that their disagreement would not affect their "friendship," but other Senate sources indicated that this friendship was typical for two senators of the same state, the same party, and the same generation. The accurate description of such relationships rarely starts with the word "friend."

But Boxer is not stopping the Quincy Library project all by herself. Another Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, also has put a "hold" on the bill, and this late in the session any one senator, even a minority Democrat, can probably keep a measure from coming to the floor.

Leahy is not from California. He is from Vermont, which could be farther from California only if it changed places with Maine or New Hampshire. Why does he care about the Quincy Library Group?

A question best answered with another question: Why does Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho care about the Northern Forest Stewardship Act?

You Westerners may laugh, but we Northeasterners have forests, too, some 26 million acres of them in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and the Adirondack region of New York. And we have consensus; a more open and inclusive process than the Californians employed was used to prepare a bill with bipartisan support from every senator and governor from all four states.

A bill being blocked by Larry Craig.

Sen. Craig's spokesman said the Idaho Republican thought the bill, sponsored by Leahy and Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, would set a "bad precedent of federal involvement in state land use issues," especially considering "the terrible state of federal land management of the national forests."

But the federal involvement in the Leahy-Gregg bill is advisory and noncoercive, with the land management decisions to be made by the states. A more likely explanation for Craig's opposition is that some in the wise-use movement are using this issue as their opening foray into the East, where they have a very small but very loud constituency and potential new market.

For wise-users such as Chuck Cushman, that property-rights advocate and friend of timber companies (and recent visitor to northern New England), politics is business. No less than Microsoft does Cushman's American Land Rights Association need to expand its customer base. The West's paranoia potential is about tapped out, forcing the entrepreneurial executive to expand to new territories. And just as Bill Gates has his Netscape, Cushman has his competition. People for the West has transformed itself into People for the USA, and is seeking a toehold in the effete East.

It would be too much to say that Craig is in thrall to Cushman and his competitors. But in this case he is listening to them instead of the eight senators from the region, six of them fellow Republicans.

So there is a method to Leahy's petulance, and a lesson for Westerners: You are not alone.

Jon Margolis often leaves Vermont to cover Washington, D.C.

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