U.S. House to the environment: Die!

 

Attacking the environment through the yearly appropriations process is not new. But this year's Congress may take it to new heights.

No less an authority than House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has acknowledged the scope of policy changes hooked on to appropriations bills: he called them "without precedent going back to 1933."

The attacks range from the bold move by the House to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing 17 environmental regulations to an obscure waiver of the Clean Water Act so that a golf course developer can build on wetlands in the district of a Texas congressman.

Although some observers say cutting the fat from environmental programs is long overdue, most say the congressional ax is aimed at too much meat, and could have a dramatic effect on public lands, wildlife, and air and water quality.

The attacks are woven through 13 appropriations bills Congress must approve each year to give federal agencies money to carry out their programs. They take one of two forms: straightforward cuts in existing programs or riders that fundamentally change existing law. These changes to law are more difficult to stop than legislation which openly seeks to change policy, such as the rewrite of the Endangered Species Act.

One reason is timing. Unlike other bills, appropriations measures must be signed into law by Oct. 1. If they are not, the government shuts down. A recent story in the Congressional Quarterly notes that this puts enormous pressure on the President to sign the bills, even if he disagrees with some specific provisions.

By folding cuts and legislative changes into spending bills, Republicans also blunt the lobbying efforts of environmentalists. The timber salvage sales rider that was attached to the 1995 Rescission Bill is a case in point, says Cathy Carlson, a lobbyist with the National Wildlife Federation (HCN, 6/26/95). The measure was deftly tucked into the much larger bill, which cut $16 billion in spending for housing and social programs and provided funds for aid for disaster relief in California and Oklahoma.

Although the House has inserted drastic changes into the appropriations bills, their final forms may be substantially more moderate. Already there are cracks in the Republicans' once-solid front. House Republicans just barely passed the restrictive Environmental Protection Agency's budget bill. And the Senate has not included many of the more radical changes.

The differences between House and Senate bills will be worked out in September by conference committees working mostly behind closed doors.

In the end, President Clinton could still veto the bills: He recently threatened to veto the EPA bill, which he called "the polluters protection act." But environmentalists shut out of the negotiations this year aren't betting on vetoes.

Here are some of the budget cuts and policy changes in this year's appropriation bills:

* Endangered Species. The House Interior appropriations bill halts funding for endangered species listing and prelisting for FY 1996. It also removes $15 million for regular activities, such as recovery planning for already listed plants and animals.

The House bill axes the National Biological Survey, which collects data on plant and animal species and their habitats. The Senate version maintains the NBS.

The Senate bill halts all funding for the model Columbia Ecosystem Management Project and prevents development of new guidelines to protect fish habitat, such as PACFISH and INFISH.

* Bureau of Land Management. Both the House and Senate bills cut funding for the BLM by 5 percent. "I think we are not doing as much for the resources as we would like to do, and now we will be doing less," says Ann Morgan, BLM state director for Nevada.

* Land and Water Conservation Fund. Both houses slash federal land acquisition funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund by over 70 percent. For BLM alone, that puts 80 priority acquisition projects at risk, says BLM spokesman Bob Henry.

* National Park Service. The House bill provides no money to the agency for managing the new Mojave National Preserve. "Were looking at potentially the first park closure," says Phil Voorhees, spokesman for the National Parks and Conservation Association. The bill also cuts $68 million from the Park Service's land acquisition budget. The bill does add $10 million for park operations.

* Mining. After a one-year moratorium, the Senate bill opens the door for the selling of mining claims based solely on the surface value of the land. The House bill maintains the ban against low-priced sales of mining claims on federal lands as well as the 14-year moratorium against offshore oil and gas drilling in many coastal areas.

Both House and Senate bills force the Office of Surface Mining to cut 38 percent of its staff. OSM enforces environmental regulations at mining sites through the West. The bills shuts down the rural abandoned mine program, a move supported by the Clinton administration.

* Bureau of Reclamation. The House bill adds $5 million in start-up money for the Animas-La Plata Project in southern Colorado, despite a recent Bureau of Reclamation study that the project was "economically unjustified."

* Forest Service. The House bill cuts resource protection programs while increasing the timber budget by 30 percent. Compared to last year's actual spending, this year's budget proposals cut forest research by $12 million; state and private forestry by $24 million; ecosystem planning by $20 million; recreation spending by $1.3 million; fish and wildlife management by $3.2 million; and rangeland management by $27 million.

Timber sales, however, get a $7.5 million increase, allowing a green harvest level of almost 3 billion board-feet. That is in addition to the estimated 4 billion board-feet that could be cut over the next two years under the salvage logging rider mentioned above.

* Environmental Protection Agency. The House bill slashes by one-third the budget of the agency charged with enforcing most pollution laws. The bill forbids adding new hazardous waste superfund sites and cuts $725 million from Safe Drinking Water Act programs. In addition, it contains 17 separate riders which kill enforcement programs that monitor areas such as raw sewage discharges, stormwater runoff, pesticides in processed food, wetlands, toxic releases at oil and gas refineries, radon in water, and lead-based paint.

Rick Keister is a Research Fellow at High Country News.

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