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.