Congress' 11th-hour moment of maturity...


WASHINGTON, D.C. - In the end, and just barely, the Congress of the United States decided to act like grown-ups, creating or expanding about 100 pieces of national parkland around the country, as they intended.

But because so many of its members had acted like children, they also "passed' - well, they caused to be created - a much larger area of natural protection, which they did not intend. Thereby hangs a tale, with a moral.

Generally speaking, mature behavior can be good policy and good politics. As an example, consider one of the provisions in that parks bill, the inclusion into the National Park System of some islands in Boston Harbor.

Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts said he managed to get and to keep these in the bill because of his "real friendship with Don Young," the chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Now, Gerry Studds is not only a liberal Democrat, he is also one of only four gay members (so far as we know) of the House. Don Young is not only a conservative Republican, but one whose staff aides bedeck their office with a bumper sticker reading, "Heterosexuals have rights, too."

Grown-ups do not let such things bother them. They keep their cool and they get islands put into the National Park System.

This congressional comity was never universal. But it was once common. In the 1940s and 1950s, Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic Party's leading advocate of civil rights. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia was its leading segregationist. Their disagreements were intense, but never personal. Had they gotten personal, passage of civil rights legislation might have been even more difficult than it was.

Comity, alas, is incompatible with ideology, and perhaps with television and its sound bites. In natural resources, one can argue that environmentalists were the first ones to get personally nasty and childish. When you assign your opponent to a sound-bite category called "the dirty dozen," you come perilously close to calling him dirty. This is not analysis. It is insult.

Lately, though, most ideological fervor has come from the right. This became more evident after their side took control of Congress. "We're in charge," proclaimed Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the Majority Whip. "We don't have to compromise." Delusion of grandeur is one sign of childishness. And so is snide wise-guy-ism, as when Rep. Sonny Bono suggested that the way to deal with endangered species was to "give them all a designated area and then blow it up."

The parks bill is a good example of congressional childishness because there was no logical reason why its passage was so difficult. So broad was its support that it passed the House by a vote of 404-4, and the Senate without dissent.

Now, anyone who wonders how it is that a bill with such broad support could come so close to failure labels him- or herself a naif in the ways of Washington. This is no disgrace. Nonetheless, an explanation will be offered.

The parks bill, also known as the Presidio Bill, became the vehicle of choice for congresspersons who wished to attach proposals unpassable on their own.

For instance, New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici's bill to give ranchers even more control over public grazing land (HCN, 9/16/96) was added to the parks bill. As were measures gutting the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and prohibiting the Forest Service from maintaining in-stream flows in Colorado.

These provisions were appended less to be enacted than because the very act of appending them pleased certain lawmakers and some of their friends and contributors. So as Congress approached its final weeks, the solution seemed obvious. The bill included more than 100 provisions no one opposed, and about 20 which most members (and their constituents) hated. In such a case, grown men and women drop the controversial few and adopt the agreed-upon many.

But that isn't what happened. One lawmaker after another, almost all of them the Western Republicans (not Domenici, who is a real grown-up and apparently does not plan to re-introduce his grazing proposals next year) pouted. If my goodie isn't part of the final bill, they said, I'll block the whole thing.

The final practitioner of pediatric petulance was Sen. Frank Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who is chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski had proposed an amendment which would have extended for 15 years the contract by which a timber company chops down the Tongass National Forest. When the House-Senate Conference Committee dropped that provision from the final bill, Murkowski threatened to scuttle the bill, risking even the displeasure of his boss, Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who wanted to pass a bill.

Murkowski got something for his intransigence - a commitment by the Clinton administration to allow logging in the Tongass for at least two more years while a final plan is worked out. With this deal, Murkowski stopped pouting and let the bill pass.

From the point of view of Western environmentalists, the Tongass deal was a small price to pay for the Parks Bill, which created a Tallgrass Prairie National Park in Kansas, protected valuable watershed land in the Northeast and added scores of rivers, trails and historic areas to the system.

Some environmentalists weren't particularly happy with the land swap for the Snowbasin ski resort near Ogden, Utah (HCN, 6/24/96), or the Sand Hollow land exchange, under which a reservoir will be built near (but not in) Zion National Park. But neither were they all that unhappy about them.

In fact, they weren't unhappy about much, especially not after President Clinton invoked the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve 1.7 million acres in southern Utah as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And who enabled him to do that?

Murkowski and DeLay and Bono and Richard Pombo and Dick Armey and, yes, the (somewhat) more adult Newt Gingrich. Only by constantly proposing extreme policies in intemperate language - two characteristics of childhood - did they create the political climate which allowed Clinton to set aside the Utah monument. Having whined and screeched for two years, their complaints would only seem like more whining and screeching.

That's the problem with acting like a child. There's usually some bigger kid on the block.

Jon Margolis observes the Washington scene for High Country News.

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