In Washington, the emperor is on Babbitt's side

  • Cartoon of Babbitt fighting Republican gladiators

    Diane Sylvain

Washington, D.C. - In the combat arena to which your nation's government has degenerated, belligerents armed with rhetorical excess and bilious discourtesy hurl their weapons at each other hoping to inflict humiliation, if not political death.

In the center ring of this civic (but uncivil) Forum, the big-name gladiators fight over the federal budget and taxes. Just off to one side rages the battle over health care, while to the other side, the warriors parry and thrust over education.

Over in one corner, ignored by most of the other combatants and by the fans, a most peculiar battle ... well, it does not rage, but smolders. So far, it seems less like a clash of titans than like the fight between dwarfs and women that the Emperor Domitian ordered for the Saturnalia in the year 90. Any minute, though, it could become a doozy, because they're squabbling about the disposition of millions of acres of Western land.

At the center of this fight, helmetless and outnumbered, is Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Surrounding him are his foes - Sens. Larry Craig of Idaho and Orrin Hatch of Utah, Reps. James Hansen of Utah and Don Young of Alaska, all of whom recoil in fear and then scream in outrage whenever he unfurls his two-word weapon - -Antiquities Act."

Babbitt may be outnumbered, but he's the only guy with a gladius. That's how the Romans said sword. Those other fellas, all they have are styli. That's how the Romans said pens, and if you think the stylus is fortier than the gladius, think iterim.

Besides, the emperor is on Babbitt's side.

Babbitt half-unsheathed his sword on Oct. 19, when he told a House committee what Western Republicans had long suspected: "If Congress does not act and produce an acceptable bill protecting these lands, I will consider asking the president to use his power."

That power is the 1906 Antiquities Act, used by President Clinton in 1996 to bring 1.7 million acres of southern Utah under federal protection as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Babbitt said openly in Washington what he has been saying more discretely around the country - the Emperor Clinton might just do it again.

The meeting in question concerned the Shivwits Plateau in Arizona, but there seemed little doubt that Babbitt was talking about other locations, too. "I am not prepared to sit back and let this Congress do what it has done for the last seven years on these areas, which is virtually nothing," he said.

Which other areas? Not surprisingly, that's what the congressmen wanted to know, so Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., asked Babbitt if he would provide Congress a list of the sites under consideration for monument designation.

"No," said the secretary.

Only after several seconds of silence did he add, "I don't mean to be disrespectful."

Coulda fooled them.

One reason government resembles a gladiatorial spectacle is that neither side respects the other these days. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Republican leaders think the administration is dishonorable and the administration thinks the Republican leaders are Neanderthals.

Thus Republican Whip Tom DeLay keeps explaining that his side has to be as tough as it is because "we don't trust this president." And Babbitt rather bluntly told that House committee that it had been stalling. "This proposal for the Shivwits Plateau was announced a year ago and today is the first hearing it has had here. I want to strike this notion that Congress has not had enough time to deal with these issues," he said.

Both sides have a point. The Grand Staircase-Escalante designation was done in a preemptory manner, after minimal notice to Utah officials. Just as preemptory has been Republican obstruction of any proposal to protect public land, though such protection does seem to have public support.

In theory, the Western Republicans are not without some resources. They can use those styli - though most of them have computers by now - to write legislation limiting the power of the president to declare national monuments. Indeed, they have so written, but the only bill with any chance of being enacted doesn't do much.

This is Hansen's bill, much buffered by an amendment inserted by Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., so that it would merely require the president to consult with the governor and the congressional delegation 60 days before declaring a national monument in their state.

"Consult" in this case means "inform," not "seek approval." Sixty days after telling these officials what he wants to do, the president would be free to do it whether they liked it or not. And the bill allows the president to avoid even this courtesy consultation under some circumstances. This explains why, when the House-passed bill came to the Senate Resources Committee, most Republicans voted against it while all the Democrats plus three moderate Republicans supported it.

The legislation's toothlessness is one reason most environmental organizations are taking no position on it. Another reason is that they are not anxious to expose their intellectual inconsistency over this law, which is out of synch with the last three decades of environmentalist rhetoric about public participation.

As Sen. Craig said in introducing his version of the bill, the Antiquities Act has been used 66 times since 1906, but "with very few exceptions, these declarations occurred before enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which recognized the need for public involvement in such issues and mandated public comment periods before such decisions are made."

He might be right. Were there a law authorizing a president to declare a chunk of land henceforth to be unprotected, the conservationist community would no doubt raise high the banner of citizen participation.

Craig's bill is not toothless. It would require congressional approval of any new designations under the Antiquities Act. It would, in other words, effectively repeal the act.

So it isn't going anywhere. Craig has vowed to bring it up when the House bill comes to the Senate floor, but in the unlikely event that the Senate accepts his substitute, the House probably would not, and if it did the president would almost surely veto it. The veto would stand.

That's because the Western Republicans have been unable to export their ire over Grand Staircase-Escalante. Nor is it just Democrats and Republican moderates who have been conspicuously un-outraged. So have GOP conservatives from the South and Midwest. They are pro-business, but not anti-nature. They are fierce protectors of private property, but not hostile to public land, and the Antiquities Act only covers land that belongs to the federal government. These Republicans may not like the way Bill Clinton went about Grand Staircase-Escalante, but they're not particularly unhappy about the outcome. On this issue, the Westerners are on their own.

So the prospect is twofold: passage of the Hansen-Vento bill, meaning presidents will have to be more open about future designations; and a few more designations by Bill Clinton, preserving more Western land and infuriating Western Republicans, who will no doubt accuse the president of acting as though he were an emperor.

To which he might reply with the words of M.T. Cicero, celebrated orator and frequent spectator at the gladiator matches at the Forum: "Oderint, dum metuant." That's how the Romans said, "Let them hate, provided that they fear."

Jon Margolis covers Washington, D.C., and once took Latin.

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