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Sierra Magazine
Newt's Game

by B. J. Bergman

His 104th Congress was the most environmentally hostile ever, but an outraged public fought back. Now, having lost the first round, the Speaker and his allies want a rematch.

They rolled the dice, landed on Capitol Hill, and primed themselves for a rout. The date was November 9, 1994. All the momentum belonged to Congress' new Republican leadership, and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his comrades-in-arms fearlessly promised radical, systemic changes in American governance.

Their "revolution," of course, was really a corporate takeover: they meant to free the few from the chains imposed by the many, not the other way around. Pollution controls? Tyranny. National parks? Waste of resources. Corporate responsibility? For a price. Unlike their historical forerunners in revolution, the ideologues of the 104th Congress had no quarrel with Big Business. Their bogeyman was Big Government, and they blamed environmentalists for passing the laws that fed the beast that preyed upon the private sector. Given Republicans' mandate for change--an electoral sweep that gave them control of Congress for the first time in 40 years--there was little doubt who the smart money was riding on.

"It's the night of the long knives for the enviro lobby in the House and the Senate," predicted a think- tanker at the right-wing Cato Institute. "They're going to pay." Since the 1970s, polluters had chafed at constraints they viewed as oppressive--rules that prohibited dumping waste into the nearest stream, or spewing toxics into the air. Now, having backed a winner, they demanded the spoils. And GOP leaders were more than willing to accommodate them. New House majority whip Tom DeLay, for instance, couldn't wait to have at the Environmental Protection Agency, which the former exterminator reviled as "the gestapo of government." Only marginally less immoderate was fellow Texan Dick Armey, Newt's top lieutenant, who vowed to shutter the agency or, failing that, "at least put a snaffle bit on them and ride the pony down." Bob Dole of Kansas, newly ascended to Senate majority leader, echoed the theme. "You've seen an onslaught of environmental regulations, without any regard to property rights," he told an American Farm Bureau convention, promising to end "environmental mandates." House Resources chief Don Young (R-Alaska) went further. "I'm the one that's in charge now," said the blustery dean of the drilling-and-development caucus. Conservationists would have to swallow his anti-wilderness agenda, advised the chairman, or "I'm just going to ram it down their throats."

But such outbursts of candor were exceptions. And with good reason: as fed up as Americans may have been with politics as usual (a disgust that fueled the GOP electoral sweep), most wanted tougher, not weaker, environmental protections. Newt's solution? Stealth. The revolution might be televised--the sanitized version, that is, portrayed in the Contract With America--but the War on the Environment would be waged under cover of darkness.

According to Gingrich, the GOP Contract was a populist manifesto, a blueprint for less government, lower taxes, safer streets, and happier families. On the environment it was conspicuously silent. For the most part, the talk was of "devolving" power to the states--skirting the fact that many state legislatures, a majority of which were also now dominated by Republicans, were taking their own steps to hand over environmental responsibility to oil, mining, ranching, and real-estate interests. Also obscured was the fact that there were two Contracts: the Cliff-Notes version published in TV Guide before the election, and the full-text version that followed. The mainstream media, fixated on power politics in the nation's capital, largely ignored the real Contract's implications for public lands, health, and safety.

Yet to those who were paying attention, the implications were staggering. "Buried throughout the Contract's legislative proposals . . . is a wholesale assault on the entire body of environmental protections achieved over the last 25 years," editorialized the San Francisco Chronicle in January 1995. While the Contract "doesn't explicitly deal with the environment," wrote Brad Knickerbocker, a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, "it is full of proposals that could dramatically impact existing laws and make it much more difficult to pass new ones."

The bulk of these proposals were contained in the innocuous-sounding Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act. The bill--which, like most of the Contract's provisions, sailed through the lower chamber--posed a triple threat to the environment via "takings," "cost-benefit," and "risk-assessment" measures. Variations on the theme of relief for property owners and businesses, all were aimed at shifting the balance of power from the regulators to the regulated, either by forcing cash-strapped agencies to compensate anyone whose profits might someday be affected by a proposed rule (takings), or by tangling them in endless skeins of red tape (cost-benefit and risk-assessment). "H.R.9 would supersede nearly every environmental standard written over the past 35 years," warned the Natural Resources Defense Council in a report endorsed and distributed by the Sierra Club. "Moreover, efforts to interpret, apply, or enforce environmental programs will be dramatically slowed or brought to a complete halt--including even such routine steps as permit decisions, formal designations, and enforcement actions."

And that was just the agenda for the first hundred days.

Over the course of the 104th Congress, Republicans spearheaded efforts to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, develop Utah's wilderness, gut the Endangered Species Act, weaken the Environmental Protection Agency, sell off national parks, speed the destruction of public forests, and even repeal key provisions of the Clean Water Act, including crucial wetlands protections. The broadside on clean water was so flagrant that it shattered the uneasy alliance of Gingrichites and long-suffering GOP moderates. Principal author Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) returned to DeLay's Nazi-buster rhetoric, railing against an "environmental gestapo" that trampled on the rights of private-property owners to fill in wetlands, or dump their muck in the river. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), the most outspoken of the dissenters, blasted the bill as "terrible," and openly applauded the split in party ranks. "For one thing," he said, "it proves that all Republicans are not anti-environmental. For another, it shows that there are not enough votes there to override a veto."

It never came to that. Shuster's "Dirty Water Act," like much of the Contract itself, had a tougher time in the more deliberative Senate, which declined even to debate it. By the fall of 1995, in fact, the War on the Environment was in shambles: not only had it failed to advance significantly, but its leaders were coming under heavy fire from increasingly incensed constituents. They had overreached, certainly. But thousands of environmental activists were a key to this dramatic change. Beginning even before the opening gavel of the 104th Congress, the Sierra Club, in concert with like-minded advocacy groups, had kept up a steady drumbeat of grassroots opposition to the Gingrich/Dole "Polluter's Bill of Rights." The clean-water debacle, replete with intra-party skirmishes, catapulted conservationists' warnings onto the network news.

Stung, Republican strategists hit on a new plan of attack: to dodge debate on anti-environmental measures, they would smuggle them inside ostensibly unrelated legislation--in this case, a series of massive, confusing budget and appropriations bills needed to keep the U.S. government running. That combination of obfuscation and parliamentary blackmail ended when President Clinton--under pressure from environmentalists--vetoed the worst of the bills, precipitating a pair of federal shutdowns that served to remind many Americans that government did have its uses, if only to keep Yosemite and the Grand Canyon open. Gingrich and his revolutionaries were soon in full strategic retreat.

But not before chalking up one major victory. In the summer of 1995, the 104th Congress succeeded in passing the so-called salvage logging rider, which suspended all environmental protections for public forests and opened up hundreds of thousands of acres, including old-growth stands in the Pacific Northwest, to devastating clearcuts. (See "Field Truths," July/August.) Dubbed "logging without laws" by environmentalists, the rider left lasting scars on America's landscape, and marred the President's record on environmental issues: it was enacted only after Clinton reversed himself on a promised veto. It is an ugly reminder--or a preview--of what can happen when a hell-bent Congress meets a compliant White House.

Republican leaders have spent much of this year struggling to repair their image, going so far as to masquerade as tree-hugging conservationists (a tribe Don Young had earlier branded a "waffle-stomping, intellectual bunch of idiots"). Now, with the 1996 elections just around the corner, they are running as kinder, gentler, and, yes, greener candidates for the 105th Congress. They have mastered the art of environmental photo ops, established an "environmental task force," even moved to renew the Safe Drinking Water Act without diluting it first. They are telling voters, poker-faced, that they were green all along.

Ironically, GOP leaders' best hope for holding the Capitol lies in their failure to execute their game plan. Unfortunately for them, however, they've already shown their hand.

Visit "Republican Theme Parks" and play Newt's Game.


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