CARA's not quite the girl she used to be

  • Diane Sylvain

WASHINGTON, D.C. - When we last left Cara, our maiden in perpetual distress, she had escaped from the railroad tracks to which she had been tied by evil members of the House of Representatives, who hoped that an onrushing freight train or mass indifference would do her in.

Not Cara, a game kid if ever there was one. She emerged as lovely and full-bodied as ever, still the object of much desire.

So she moved across Capitol Hill, only to be captured by a couple of rogue senators who tied her to a log on a conveyor belt heading straight for the blade of an immense circular saw.

She got out of that one, too. But, you know, Cara's not the girl she used to be. That conveyor belt experience must have been traumatic. What emerged is not a vibrant, luscious young lass but a scrawny post-adolescent.

She even has a new name. Cara has become LCPII , or in some circles, CARA Light (often spelled a different way; there are depths beneath which I will not sink). What kind of name is that for a girl that was going to save the American earth?

OK, as you no doubt have guessed, I'm messing with a metaphor. Cara isn't really a maiden. She's an acronym for the Conservation and Recreation Act of 1999, which had the support of almost the entire world.

The bill that was CARA has become the law that is the Land Conservation Preservation and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2000. CARA would have provided almost $3 billion a year, every year, for the next 15 years - no questions asked, no need to go through that messy Congressional appropriations process - to federal and state agencies to buy land for parks, historic preservation, or environmental protection.

LCPII, which was wrapped into the overall Interior Department budget, provides $1.6 billion this year. It also sort-of-promises, a practice unique to Congress and illicit lovers, more money over the next five years, for a sort-of-commitment of $12 billion.

Every year a battle?

But, quoth the managers of the House-Senate conference that put together the final version, "the program is not mandatory and does not guarantee annual appropriations." In other words, spending for land purchases will have to go through the appropriations process.

From which two questions arise: Is this outcome "a lasting legacy for our grandchildren" as President Clinton said when he signed the bill in the Rose Garden on October 11? Or is it "end-of-the-year smoke and mirrors," as alleged by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, part of the impressive conservative-liberal coalition behind CARA?


One-point-six billion clams is a lot of clams. They can buy a lot of land, about five times as much as has been bought each year over the last two decades. But it isn't as much as CARA would have provided, nor are future appropriations assured.

Which brings up Question Two: How can a bill supported by 315 House members, 66 senators, and the president not get passed? Is this a democracy, or what?

Maybe what. Here, according to several folks who are knowledgeable but prefer to remain anonymous, is what happened:

After House passage, CARA sailed through the Senate Resource committee, chaired by Murkowski. With 66 supporters, it couldn't fail to pass the Senate, if only it could get to the floor, the door to which is controlled by Majority Leader Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who was pro-CARA.

But Lott is likely to be challenged for his leadership spot next year by Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, giving him what the economists would call a marginal disinclination to displease his colleagues, including Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, one of the few senators who didn't like CARA. Craig is not hostile to the idea of adding to the public domain, but he is supported by the anti-public land "property rights" zealots who are, and who have some influence in Idaho.

Craig found an ally in ... Nickles, looking for any excuse to harass Lott, and the two of them found another ally in Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, whose objections were less to buying land than to allowing anything to get outside the appropriation process. At one meeting, he was even overheard saying, "This is my money."

No, Gorton is not a crook; he's an appropriator. He's the chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, and controlling his piece of the public purse is important to him. Lott didn't want to get Gorton mad, either, so as the session clock ticked toward adjournment, CARA stayed in limbo.

To be an appropriator, it should be understood, is not to be power-mad. At least it is not merely to be power-mad. These procedures exist for a reason. Part of Congress' job is to appropriate money. It is not supposed to give any administration a blank check, and while this check wasn't entirely blank (Congress would have had to approve each purchase) it was too close for some members.

Not all of whom are conservative Republicans.

Rep. David Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, was also disturbed by how much spending CARA would exempt from the usual appropriations process. Obey, the liberal ranking member of the Education and Labor Appropriation Subcommittee, was the guy the White House was relying on to get its education package passed.

Let's make a deal

Into the messy situation moved George Frampton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, making him the top White House guy in these matters. Frampton offered to deal on both the total spending and the appropriation exemption. That made it easy for everyone; even Craig voted for the compromise.

Well, almost everyone. One theory making the rounds is that Frampton plunged in partly to get rid of one aspect of CARA, the "coastal mitigation" section granting extra money to states where oil and gas wells have been drilled off-shore. Some environmentalists opposed this, fearing that some states would mitigate themselves some superhighways and shopping centers.

Frampton was once head of The Wilderness Society, and might have shared this reservation. At any rate, coastal mitigation is out, and that's why Murkowski isn't happy with the compromise. Neither are some environmental organizations, who loved the idea of not having to go through these appropriations fights every year.

Still, everyone learned a valuable lesson. In this democracy, having two-thirds of the support of everyone only guarantees partial success. CARA, we hardly know ye.

Jon Margolis reports on Washington doings from his home in Vermont.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Jon Margolis

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