Congress' war against nature creates backlash

 

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, everyone expected attacks on environmental laws and programs. And they came.

But now, with just days left until the end of the 104th Congress' first year, the anti-environment flood has been slowed. With the exception of the salvage logging legislation signed by President Clinton this summer, the most radical proposals have disappeared from the table. The Republican party is divided over its environmental agenda and President Clinton is brandishing the veto threat with fervor, having discovered the environment as a potent theme for his 1996 re-election campaign.

According to Washington observers, Republicans overreached. House Speaker Newt Gingrich told reporters in November his party had "mishandled the environment all spring and summer."

An undisciplined GOP opened the doors wide to industry lobbyists, says Ben McNitt of the National Wildlife Federation, and they rushed in with a wish list a mile long.

"There is broad public support for re-examining regulation to make it more streamlined and to balance the budget," McNitt says. "But some Republicans loaded up the process with all kinds of bells and whistles and goofball ideas. The thing got out of control."

Others are more blunt.

"Republicans are aware that their environmental policies are doing them no good. But like a binge eater who knows he should stop, they can't," wrote pundit Jessica Matthews in a Nov. 27 Washington Post opinion piece. "... the Republicans could have undone much more environmental law if they'd reached for much less."

Signs of the backlash became obvious in September, when moderate Republicans broke from their conservative colleagues on the Endangered Species Act (HCN, 11/13/95). Then in November, the House twice rejected an Interior spending bill, largely because it contained language lifting a moratorium on land sales to mining companies with claims on public lands. Scores of Republicans joined Democrats to swamp the bill.

On Nov. 2, Reps. Sherwood Boehlert, R-NY, and Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, led a bipartisan effort to pass a measure instructing a conference committee to remove 17 riders limiting Environmental Protection Agency enforcement of existing protections. When the conference committee retained a few of them, the House rejected the measure 216-208, with 25 Republicans crossing party lines.

The turn of events has left environmentalists optimistic for the first time in almost a year. But no one is willing to say the war is over.

Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of the Sierra Club, says the moderating of the Republican rhetoric is not always matched by action. Before the second vote on the Interior Appropriations bill, Gingrich sent a letter to all House members urging them to retain accelerated logging on Alaska's Tongass National Forest and allow the sale of public lands to mining companies that had patented their claims. "The worst thing we can do now is let our guard down," says Hamilton.

Budget bills still contain much of the Republican agenda. Big ticket items, such as the proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, still lie within the massive budget reconciliation bill. Though President Clinton has vowed to veto the measure, many of the proposals could slip through when Clinton and the Republicans strike their eventual compromise.

In fact, most observers predict at least parts of the anti-environment agenda will stick. But time may be running out on the revolution.

"When you come into power, you've got to do things fast or else everything just gets gummed up," says Jim Lyon of the Mineral Policy Center. "That's what (former President Ronald) Reagan and (former Interior Secretary) Watt discovered. They've (the Republicans) got to do things now or else much of their agenda won't happen."

For more information about the environmental measures contained in the budget bills, contact the National Wildlife Federation, which recently completed a 42-page report, Funding Worth Fighting For. The Federation can be reached at 1400 Sixteenth Street, N., Washington, D.C. 20036 (202/797-6855).

Paul Larmer, HCN associate editor

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