Can 'property rightsniks' stop a popular bill?


WASHINGTON, D.C. - You know folks are going to lose when they choose Helen Chenoweth-Hage to close their argument.

Resplendent in a red suit, perhaps symbolic of going down in flames, the Idaho Republican stood at the well of the House and used her two minutes to ... well, that wasn't quite clear; her rhetoric was neither memorable nor comprehensible. But she did insist that the bill before the House was a bad idea.

Her colleagues disagreed by a vote of 315-to-102. Even most Republicans disagreed, voting 118-to-93 for the Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 2000, familiarly known as CARA, which the Republican leadership had been keeping off the floor for months.

No wonder it passed. Here was a measure with more than 300 co-sponsors. Its chief sponsors were Alaska's Don Young, the very conservative Republican chairman of the House Resources Committee, and California's George Miller, the very liberal Democrat who is the ranking minority member.

In these precincts, such a line-up is known as a broad coalition.

So it's a wrap, right? CARA, with its guaranteed $2.8 billion in permanent funding every year for the next 15 years for federal state, and local governments to buy land, is going to become law. With all that support, and the strong backing of President Clinton, how can the Senate reject it?

Just watch, starting on June 14, when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee takes up the measure. Its chances in the committee are good. Its chances on the Senate floor remain uncertain.

There is a connection between Chenoweth-Hage's near-incoherence and the dangers that continue to confront CARA. Because in addition to the intrinsic importance of the bill, its progress so far tells us something about how democracy in American is working these days.

But first, no one should underestimate the scope of this legislation. Unlike most of what Congress does, CARA could actually affect the lives of most Americans. Not that $2.8 billion is a lot of money in the great scheme of things, but it can buy a lot of land, easements and improvements.

The measure would provide $900 million every year for the federal government to purchase land which is ecologically sensitive and/or desirable for outdoor recreation. It provides another $1 billion for what is known in government jargon as Impact Assistance and Coastal Conservation, which requires some explanation.

All this money comes from the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund, financed by royalties on off-shore oil and gas drilling. "Impact Aid" is to compensate localities for whatever impact the drilling may have. A lot of this money would go to Alaska (partially explaining the support of Rep. Young and Sen. Frank Murkowski) and Louisiana.

But some will also go to California, where there is almost no drilling but a great many congressional representatives. This was one of the complaints of the opposition - that there was a certain amount of less-than-candid political marketing going on. They were correct. What else is new?

Something for everyone

The bill also spreads some $125 million a year to states and localities for "Urban Park and Recreation Recovery." That's ball fields. That's the support of soccer moms and recreation departments all over the land. Other money goes to Indian reservations (another constituency) to state fish and game departments (yet another, with clout), and to top it all off some $200 million goes for paying states and localities for the property tax revenue lost when government buys land from private, tax-paying, owners.

All of which explains why CARA passed the House so overwhelmingly. Now let's turn to the more complex question of why it took so long, why it finally happened, and why the bill still may never become law.

Obviously, somebody opposes CARA. Because the opposition is small in numbers, it must be well-placed. It is. The opposition is - or was - the leadership of the House of Representatives, not so much Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, as his lieutenants, especially Tom DeLay of Texas.

They were against it because a key component of their constituency is against it, the self-described "property rights" movement active in rural areas, especially in the West.

"The bill will do more damage to people than good, especially in rural America," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association. "People will be forced to sell their land for federal land acquisition."

People would be forced to do no such thing. But this does not render Cushman's opposition irrational. With more money, governments will be able to buy more land. Mainly, though, the very irrationality of the opponents is rational. Their purpose is not to make sense, nor even to win votes, but to oppose, and to prosper while doing it. Cushman's American Land Rights Association is a (perfectly legal) racket. It flourishes by keeping its constituents as upset as possible; the angrier they get, the faster flow the direct-mail contributions. This is the stuff the founding fathers did not predict.

Which cannot be said of the force that finally got the bill to the House floor: public opinion. Even leaders can't hold on forever against the folks, especially folks that are pretty well-connected themselves.

Were there a single straw that broke this dromedary's dorsal it was an editorial in the Chicago Tribune headlined, "Mr. Speaker, call CARA for a vote." The Tribune (full disclosure: where I was gainfully and happily employed for 22 years) sells lots of papers in Mr. Speaker's district. A few days later, he did what it told him to do.

Now for the Senate. Co-sponsor Murkowski is the committee chairman, and with all nine Democrats likely to favor the measure, he needs but one more Republican. He'll probably get a few, almost certainly Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, a relative moderate, and possibly Jim Bunning of Kentucky, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and maybe even Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Slade Gorton of Washington.

So what's the problem? Well, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is allied with some of those same property-rightsniks who held things up in the House. Without his okay, bills don't get to the floor. Then, of course, there's the possibility of a filibuster.

But - here comes old-fashioned democracy again - both delay and filibuster are risky for the Republicans. There's nothing Al Gore would like better than a GOP-led effort to block a popular piece of legislation. So perhaps there's nothing Gov. George W. Bush would like worse.

The final way in which CARA's situation echoes democracy's comes from the other side of the political spectrum.

Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are withholding their support. They say the bill will provide an incentive for more off-shore drilling, and that some of the "coastal impact" money will be used to build highways, expand ports and similar construction projects.

They're right. That's one reason Young, Murkowski and others favor putting aside all this money for buying public land.

That's another thing about democracy: not only doesn't it ever please everyone, it never totally pleases anyone. Everyone sitting around the table has to get something, meaning everyone has to give something.

Democracy, in other words, requires a certain amount of self-abnegation. Right now, CARA has a slightly better chance of surviving the Senate than democracy has of surviving the era of self-indulgence.

Jon Margolis spies on Washington, D.C., from Vermont.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Jon Margolis

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