Nevada Sen. Harry Reid "is a son-of-a-bitch," a professional environmentalist in Washington, D.C., griped last week.
It's an epithet that fits many denizens of Congress, especially those who walk over people while climbing to power. Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, has that kind of toughness, honed by childhood poverty and his father's suicide.
Even Reid's constituents tend to see him that way. He's represented Nevada in the Senate for 22 years, and in the House for four years before that. Yet a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll in June found that only 34 percent of Nevadans have a favorable opinion of him, while 46 percent "viewed him unfavorably."
When an environmentalist criticizes Reid, though, it might seem out of line. Reid has voted green on at least 75 percent of the key environmental bills over the last 10 years, according to the League of Conservation Voters.
But sometimes the senator takes spectacularly anti-green positions. He's the political architect of a proposed 6-foot-diameter, 300-mile-long pipeline that would suck up rural groundwater for Las Vegas' use, for instance. Most egregiously, he's the bulwark protecting the decrepit General Mining Act of 1872.
That law, a relic of the gold-rush era, lets hardrock miners extract a billion dollars' worth of gold, copper and other minerals from federal land each year without paying any royalties to the federal government. It also encourages environmentally risky mining proposals, despite the history of mines polluting streams with toxic heavy metals.
Reid has mining in his blood as well as his politics. His father was a gold miner and he grew up in a mining town. Gold mines are a huge power in Nevada, responsible for 80 percent of the nation's gold production. The mining companies shovel money into his campaigns, and he always hopes for votes in mining towns.
It's a D.C. ritual: Year after year, environmentalists try to reform the mining law and year after year, Reid blocks them. In the last session of Congress, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have imposed royalties and used some of the revenue to clean up pollution. The bill was never even introduced in the chamber that Reid runs, because the other senators knew it was useless and didn't want to incur his wrath.
In the current session, Sen. Jeff Bingaman -- a fellow Democrat from New Mexico -- has dared to try. He's sponsoring a bill that's vague and loopholed but better than nothing. It would impose royalties only on new mines, somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of the value of their production, while allowing the companies to deduct transportation and processing costs. It would also impose a special fee (up to 1 percent) to raise money for mine reclamation. And -- this is crucial -- it would establish more ways for environmentalists, agencies and local governments to prevent mining in sensitive areas.
Meanwhile, the perennial champion for reform, West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, D, is pushing a tougher bill: 8 percent royalty on new mines, 4 percent on existing mines, and new environmental protections. Both bills would end patenting (privatization) of federal land by miners, which has been stymied temporarily by moratoriums Congress passed each year since 1994.
The Obama administration backs the reformers. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testified in a July 14 hearing on Bingaman's bill: "We are committed to devoting significant resources … to get this done." Reform would immediately help Westerners who are battling unpopular mining proposals near Tucson, Ariz., and Crested Butte, Colo.
But Reid probably isn't going away. Running for re-election next year, he's setting a new record for campaign money, on track to hit $25 million (more than triple the budget for his last campaign). And in May, as the Nevada Legislature tried to raise the state's puny mine tax (an effective rate of less than 1 percent), Reid worked behind the scenes to prevent that reform.
Reid's chamber will decide the Westwide issue once again. Bingaman's bill is like a little flame on a wooden match, vulnerable to any wind that could snuff it out. We'll see whether Reid blows as hard as usual.