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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Ghost Riders

Congress falls back on stealth, deceit, and pork

In the court of public opinion, the case is closed. There is now an overwhelming national consensus for environmental protection among people of all ages, races, levels of education, and political affiliations. So universal is this sentiment that most people find it hard to believe that anyone-especially their elected representatives-would knowingly harm the environment. In Congress, this means that blatantly anti-environmental bills no longer stand a chance in a fair vote on the House or Senate floor.

Rather than desisting from introducing anti-environmental measures, however, the congressional leadership is seeking ways to prevent a fair vote. Their favorite mechanism is the "rider," a narrowly focused provision that is attached to a larger bill with bipartisan support. If a rider sneaks through the legislative process, the president can't veto it without vetoing the entire bill.

This summer, for example, the Republican congressional leadership larded the new highway/transportation bill with $9 billion worth of pork-barrel projects. Having assured passage of the bill by including a little something for everyone, anti-environmentalist Republicans then loaded it up with a bunch of unrelated riders that could never have passed on their own. One postponed for nearly a decade a badly needed EPA program to clean up regional haze fouling our national parks; another mandated that key portages in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness be opened to motorized vehicles. A rider by Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) to a spending bill would allow a road to be built through a wildlife refuge in southwest Alaska. Also hidden in a big appropriations bill were funds to construct a highway through New Mexico's Petroglyph National Monument. And Senator Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) attached a rider to the massive bill funding the Department of Defense that would convert the magnificent Owyhee Canyonlands into a bombing range.

Such backdoor tactics have become the norm because a straightforward approach no longer works. In March, for instance, the House rejected a proposal by Representative Bob Smith (R-Ore.) to let timber companies cut down national forests in the name of "forest health." Instead, it voted to endorse the administration's moratorium on new roads on 30 million acres of national forest. Western Republicans retaliated by threatening steep cuts in the U.S. Forest Service's budget. Of course, had they actually implemented this threat, it would have caused the layoff of thousands of Forest Service employees. Moreover, it would have been an astonishing act of political suicide: the Forest Service is a major employer in many of the rural counties that serve as Western Republicans' power base. (One might as easily imagine Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott threatening to shut down Mississippi's Pascagoula Naval Shipyard because he disapproves of President Clinton's deployment of the Sixth Fleet.)

Does Senator Larry Craig (R) really plan to shut down one of the biggest employers in rural Idaho? Probably not. But desperation produces strange decisions, and the raperuin-and-run gang is indeed desperate. Its political support is eroding, and even the once monolithic timber industry is showing cracks, like the Southern Utah Forest Products Association's endorsement of the Forest Service's roadbuilding moratorium. In June, House Republicans finally gave up trying to maintain the scandalous public subsidy for new logging roads. (While demonstrating the clout of environmentally moderate Republicans, the concession required the moderates to promise that no further cuts to the Forest Service's timber program would come this year.) The retreat was tactical, meant to prevent a greater rout.

In another rearguard action, Washington Senator Slade Gorton (R) is using appropriations extortion instead of appropriations pork. Gorton is bottling up Clinton administration proposals to restore salmon runs on the Elwha River, which would require tearing down two dams. Gorton says he'll fund the restoration-but only if the administration gives up its efforts to restore much larger salmon runs on the Snake and Columbia rivers. Other riders would stop the reintroduction of the grizzly bear to Idaho and Montana; subsidize a private ski development in Utah; mandate a 150 percent increase in logging on Tongass National Forest; and even forbid the EPA to educate the public about global warming.

These ugly measures mask the declining fortunes of congressional anti-environmentalists. Even though they control the leadership of Congress, they can no longer count on winning a straight up-and-down vote. Nor can they count on automatic support from the media and the public in even the most conservative corners of the West. The myth that flourished in the early 1990s of a growing anti-environmental "wise-use" movement representing a genuine new populism has now been thoroughly discredited.

What remains is the power of House leadership and the disproportionate sway in the Senate of the thinly populated western states. But a change of only 11 House seats would put environmental hero George Miller (D-Calif.) back in charge of the House Resources Committee. Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) are showcasing their environmental record in their re-election bids. And now, western Republicans get elected in spite of their environmental positions, not because of them.

In a system that draws its strength from the consent of the governed, pork and stealth are not enough to sustain policies that the people reject. Sierra Club activists and voters have a chance to deliver this elementary civics lesson to Newt Gingrich and company on November 3.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at carl.pope@sierraclub.org


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