Back to the past: House resets pollution laws

 

This is not a good time to be an environmentalist in Washington.

With House Republicans scrambling to meet their self-imposed deadline of voting in the party's Contract With America by the Easter recess, some of the most anti-environmental bills in the history of environmental legislation have blasted through the House of Representatives.

This is also not a good time to be thoughtful in Washington.

Even though the changes in the concept of the rights and responsibilities of government are sweeping, the Contract's bills were muscled through without the usual minuet of hearings, meetings and markup that allow all sides to have their say on federal legislation.

Conservation-minded representatives, including Republicans Sherwin L. Boehlert of New York and John E. Porter of Illinois, could do little more than lodge objections in the Congressional Record.

When Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner pointed out the public-health benefits of clean air and water regulations in a press release, she was threatened by freshman congressman David Martin McIntosh, R-Ind. McIntosh, who headed Vice President Dan Quayle's anti-regulatory Competitiveness Council, charged that Browner's defense of the Clean Air Act and other laws of the land constituted illegal lobbying. Browner fired back a letter saying, "Keeping the American people informed and educated about fundamental health and safety issues ... is an essential part of my duties."

Environmental lobbyists who once spent their days negotiating the language of law with congressional staff and industry lobbyists have discovered that not only does lobbying no longer exist, but also that their life's work is about to be erased.

"It's an attempt to reverse the last 30 years of environmental legislation," said Bill Klinefelter, legislative director of the industrial unions department of the AFL-CIO, and a longtime lobbyist on environmental issues. "Everything is up for grabs."

"It's easy to get depressed," said Pam Goddard, a Sierra Club lobbyist who watched her efforts against the takings bill go for naught. "But we can't."

As passed by the House, the Contract With America bills would:

* Require the federal government to compensate any property owner who loses 20 percent or more of the property's value through government actions under the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act wetlands protections and farm conservation programs. This bill would expand on the "takings' provisions of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which courts generally have held requires compensation only if regulations wipe out almost all property value (HCN, 9/19/94);

* Impose a moratorium on all federal regulations until major regulatory reform legislation is passed;

* Require exhaustive new analyses of proposed regulations, including risk assessments, cost-benefit analyses and multiple opportunities for appeal by affected industries. The Office of Management and Budget would be given vast powers to veto regulations and stop agencies from gathering information from regulated industries; and

* Cut the public- and private-sector costs of regulatory compliance by setting an annual "regulatory budget" and trimming all regulations to meet it. That, along with risk assessment, could hamstring pollution control, food safety and other regulatory programs.

With the bills moving to the Senate, the possibility of actual debate on the merits increases. Moderate, pro-environment Republicans, including John Chafee of Rhode Island, father of the 1990 Clean Air Act, and James M. Jeffords of Vermont, hold key committee posts.

Environmental lobbyists who only last year lamented the Senate's dilatory pace now see it as a chance to compensate for the House's haste. They are cheered because the Senate deliberated the balanced budget amendment for five weeks - ample time to point out its risk to Social Security - and the measure was defeated.

"Our hope is that those bills will come up after the Easter recess," said Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, a consumer watchdog group formed in the 1980s to fight the anti-regulatory crusades of the Reagan and Bush administrations. "That dovetails nicely with the grassroots strategy." OMB Watch is leading the fight against the Contract through its new 250-member environmental and labor coalition, Citizens for Sensible Safeguards.

The coalition's strategy includes an Internet address, [email protected], and a toll-free number (800/651-1424) that, for $8 on a credit card, spits out Western Union Mailgrams to your senators and representatives with a message like this: "I'm in favor of private property rights. However, the regulatory takings legislation before Congress will bankrupt this nation! Why should I have to pay government-subsidized mining companies not to pollute the water or pay corporations not to expose workers to hazardous chemicals? American taxpayers will lose from this legislation and I urge you to reject it."

"We are also vigilantly trying to set up meetings with senators back home," Bass said. The Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation also are cranking up their networks of activists to work over their senators and congressmen when they return home. Recess begins April 7 for the House, and April 14 for the Senate. When Congress returns to Washington, it will be greeted by National Call-In Day, April 28, when the coalition is urging people to badger their congress people by phone.

Environmentalist groups hope their efforts will be welcomed by voters who remain dubious about many aspects of the Contract. Polls after the election show that the public continues to overwhelmingly support governmental environmental protection, even if it costs them money. A February New York Times/CBS News poll found that half the populace is ignorant about the contents of the Contract, and a majority oppose its primary tenets: increasing military spending, allowing the police warrantless searches, and cutting off welfare for teen-age mothers.

"It's imperative that we say "This is not the signal you got in November," "''''said Sierra Club's Goddard. "We are taking very seriously what we consider the war on the environment."

There are signs that the Senate is listening, or at least willing to be more temperate than the House. In late March the Senate moved to water down the House's regulatory reform bill. The Senate version does not require risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses of existing environmental regulations and changes the regulatory moratorium to a 45-day congressional veto period over new regulations.

The Senate is considering five takings bills, some of which erect higher thresholds than the House version. Those sponsored by Phil Gramm, R-Texas, (S145) and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, (S135) require property owners to sue the government to receive compensation; Dole's bill (S22) requires compensation when 30 percent of property value is lost.

And don't think that the House can be ignored now that it has signed off on the Contract. Members such as Billy Tauzin, D-La., and Don Young, R-Alaska, are expected to use pending reauthorizations of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water acts as vehicles for the same kind of takings and anti-regulatory constructs that went in the Contract.

When the Senate finally finishes its work, the House and Senate will meet in conference committee and try to come up with bills that both houses can live with. No one is counting on the conference to kill the Contract. "We certainly hope the President's going to veto a lot of this stuff," said Klinefelter.

Nancy Shute won a Censored Project award for her reporting on the Competitiveness Council's anti-environmental agenda. She writes in Washington, D.C.

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