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The Planet

Green Laws a Hit With Public -- But in Congress, Money Talks

B.J. Bergman

Newt Gingrich calls it a populist revolution. Bob Dole says the American people are sick of paying taxes to save the environment. Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin insists that ordinary citizens think property owners should be able to do whatever they like with their land, no matter how deleterious the environmental or public-health impacts. Bad news for environmentalists? It would be - if any of it were true.

The truth is, Americans overwhelmingly support environmental protections. Just months before Gingrich's November "revolution," four out of five Americans were telling pollsters we should "do whatever it takes" to protect the environment; more than three in five said environmental regulations are worth the cost; and most said laws to protect endangered species and wetlands and combat air and water pollution don't go far enough.

In January - during the infamous "first hundred days" of supposedly populist deregulation - 67 percent of respondents said they believed the government should not cut back environmental programs in order to balance the budget, as opposed to just 27 percent who favored cutbacks. And nearly nine in 10 said the environment was either "very important" or "one of the most important" problems facing the country today.

All of which presents Congress with a dilemma: With four out of five Americans saying they want to protect the environment, how can the nation's elected leaders reverse the progress of the past quarter-century? Their answer, increasingly, is: Any which way we can. Employ camouflage, for example, by wrapping anti-environmental provisions in populist-sounding rhetoric. Slash funding for green initiatives, agencies and programs, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the California Desert Protection Act. Take a page from the snake-oil sales manual by insisting that legislation to destroy millions of acres of Utah wilderness is really an antidote for the ills of corporate greed. Or, as with "logging without laws" and the renewed assault on the Arctic, attach a rider to a budget bill where, if all goes well, the public will barely notice it - and the president will be hard-pressed to veto it. That tactic fizzled when President Clinton, responding to thousands of calls, faxes and e-mail messages from grassroots activists, used his first veto to block a bill that would have rescinded $16 billion in 1995 spending authorizations, inside of which nestled the timber industry's license to clearcut publicly owned forests. Clinton's resolve dissolved quickly, though: He has agreed to sign a modified version of the bill, even though the horrendous "logging without laws" provision survives virtually intact.

Editorial writers and U.S. citizens are beginning to realize that "anti-regulatory" is a code word for "anti- environmental" - and that the Gingrich "revolution" runs counter to the wishes of the vast majority of Americans. So if you wondered why the 104th Congress is waging its War on the Environment under cover of darkness - disguising its attacks with flag-waving rhetoric, flat-out misrepresentations and underhanded parliamentary maneuvers - the answer is clear as day. It's called vox populi.


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