Doomed park bill just a tool of politicos


WASHINGTON, D.C. - As a young Italian girl once noted, names can be confusing.

Take the name, "Presidio." To the many millions who speak Spanish, it's no name at all, merely a word for prison. To San Franciscans familiar with their city's history, it's the name of a fort the Spaniards built in 1776 when they ran the place. To soldiers, it was, until recently, a 1,500-acre army post.

On Capitol Hill, it's the new name for the latest raid on Western public lands.

Or, perhaps more accurately, it's the new name for the kind of political ritual dance which members of Congress cannot resist, regardless of its consequences or lack thereof.

To the dismay of those posted there (it was soft duty), the Presidio was deemed unnecessary to the national defense in the recent military base closing commission process. Thanks to its location hard by the Golden Gate, abutting other parks and recreation land, there was little opposition to the obvious suggestion to include it in the national park system, a step which required an act of Congress.

Legislation to create a self-financing trust to administer the new park was duly drawn up by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who represents the neighborhood. Without controversy, it passed the House. Then, as is the procedure when the two houses pass different versions of the same bill, the measure went to a House-Senate conference committee.

Katie, bar the door!

Sorry, folks, Katie was too late. House Republicans, mostly the anti-public-lands zealots from the West, have now appended to the bill a luxuriance of amendments, many of which have nothing whatever to do with parks, many of which have never been considered by any congressional committee.

Though changes were being made almost hourly as Congress rushed toward its August recess, the bill would also give away 1,000 acres of designated wilderness from Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska so that a hydroelectric dam could be built, prevent the Forest Service from maintaining in-stream flows on the national forests in Colorado, permit construction of a new reservoir - with explicit instructions that the National Environmental Policy Act would not apply - near Zion National Park in Utah, and substantially weaken the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to open more land to oil and gas development on the North Slope and to increase logging on the Tongass National Forest.

To ice the cake, the House conferees also threw in Sen. Pete Domenici's grazing bill, the one which got through the Senate but couldn't pass the House on its own, and which President Clinton has vowed to veto.

Now, before the gentle reader gets all in an uproar about both the substance and the procedures just described, a few qualifications are in order. First, this kind of legislative piling-on was not invented by the evil conservative Republicans after they took control of Congress last year. It was a technique oft practiced by liberal Democrats who used to be in charge. Both sides equally honor the wisdom of the great political philosopher G.W. Plunkett, who noted that there was no limit on what legislators could do "with a working majority and no conscience to speak of."

Second, this bill is not going to pass. Even had President Clinton not made it clear in a July 26 letter to Speaker Newt Gingrich that he would veto the measure if all these goodies stayed in it, the chances of it passing either house were slim. The chances of the Conference Report surviving a Senate filibuster were less than slim. Indeed, the alert conservationist would forget about H.R. 1296, the measure's formal name, and worry about the possibility that one of these Republican congressmen would try to slip his pet desecration through as a separate measure.

The third qualification is that most of the Republicans who are tacking these amendments onto the Presidio bill know full well that it won't pass.

This is important because it contradicts the conventional wisdom about why the Republicans are doing what they are doing. That conventional wisdom holds that the congressmen are trying to piggy-back their controversial proposals onto the benign and widely supported Presidio Trust in the hopes that just enough of their colleagues, and the president, will take the bitter so that they can get the sweet. As the Washington Post put it in a June 28 editorial, "members look around for a big bill steaming to passage on the back of which it may be possible to hook a token of election-year esteem for the folks back home."

But this assumes that the purpose of legislation is legislation, an assumption which has been outmoded for several years now. As Montana's Democratic Rep. Pat Williams once noted, "Politics used to be the tool by which you passed legislation. Now legislation is the tool by which you engage in politics."

At its crassest, that tool works this way: You introduce an amendment which would cut taxes in half. After the amendment is defeated, you get a list of all the congressmen who voted against it, meaning all those with an ounce of responsibility. Then you prepare a television commercial which asserts, "Rep. Jones voted against cutting your taxes." Or, if you have no shame whatever, "Rep. Jones voted to raise your taxes." Then you watch Jones squirm.

That's not exactly what's going on here. In this case, the Western Republicans proposing these amendments are playing not to the electorate at large but to their specific sub-constituencies - the extractive industries, the big contributors and the rank-and-filers of the wise-use movement. Now they can go home and tell these folks, honestly and accurately, that they struggled to the very end.

They aren't being insincere. They'd really like to pass all these amendments. Furthermore, there's a personal, as well as a political motive here. These folks came to town to fight their good fight. They want to bring these measures to the floor, if possible. Sure, they'd rather win the votes than lose them. But win or lose, they'd rather have the votes.

That's why it's a ritual dance, and truth to tell, it isn't only the members of Congress who are tripping the light fantastic. These amendments also give the people in the environmental organizations the chance to go into their act - grinding out press releases, faxing letters to their supporters, calling their favorite reporters and editorial writers.

They're not being insincere, either, and it's their job to sound the alarm. But they, too, know that the Presidio bill as amended isn't going to pass. So, one has to be careful about how one reads the news coming out of this burg. Not only do names have their own meanings in these parts, but a lot of what you hear is what that Italian girl's boyfriend called "a beggarly account of empty boxes."

Jon Margolis enjoys reporting on what goes on inside the Beltway. He is a former columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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