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Ways & Means

Forward Into the Past

Bush pushes for the return of secret government

By Carl Pope

When I first went to Washington as an environmental lobbyist in 1969, the business of government took place behind closed doors. It might have been government for the people, but it certainly wasn’t by the people.

Congressional committees drafted and approved legislation in executive sessions. The House of Representatives allowed recorded votes only on final bills, not on amendments. Agency bureaucrats simply told the public what they had decided, revealing neither the reasons for their decision nor the options they had rejected. Highways, power plants, and other major projects were forced down the throats of communities, without their agreement and sometimes without their knowledge. There was no mechanism by which citizens could contest proposals to dam rivers, log ancient forests, or mine national parks. Business and industry had "standing" to challenge government orders to clean up air and water pollution; those being poisoned did not.

During the next decade, the sun shone in. The hearings of congressional committees were opened to the public. Legislative votes were recorded in their entirety. State and local "sunshine" ordinances ended backroom meetings. At the national level, the Freedom of Information Act gave individuals and groups like the Sierra Club access to the previously secret raw material of policy. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and an alphabet soup of other laws mandated environmental review and public participation. And the citizen suit provisions of the Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, and Superfund Acts gave Americans unprecedented power. For the first time, agencies had to answer to more than wealthy economic interests. Environmental laws became enforceable, largely because citizens could insist that they be enforced.

Today the windows that were opened during the ’60s and ’70s are being systematically slammed shut and bricked over. The Bush administration has long made it clear that it regards the public’s right to know as an irritant; since September 11, that irritant is being couched as a threat to national security, as when on October 12, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft urged government agencies to deny, whenever possible, Freedom of Information Act requests. The administration followed by deleting material regarding risks at nuclear power plants, chemical factories, and refineries from government Web sites, even though right-to-know laws called for it to be publicly posted. It also declared last fall that NEPA’s public-comment requirements didn’t apply to military projects in coastal waters, like the sonar experiments that have been implicated in the mass beachings of whales. (Environmentalists challenged this position in court, and won.)

In addition to national security, the vague need to "streamline" is often proposed as a rationale for restricting public access and participation. The administration has declared that citizens need be given only a limited opportunity to speak out about major transportation projects like airports and highways that are deemed "high priority." A new executive order also granted the U.S. Department of Transportation greater authority to control the environmental reviews prepared for the public, to complete them more rapidly, and to identify further ways to reduce or eliminate citizen involvement in transportation planning.

The administration dispensed with public input in a number of key energy decisions, too, including approval of 77,000 methane wells in Wyoming and Montana and a seismic testing project near Arches National Park in Utah. In both cases, the Interior Department ignored NEPA and simply turned over public lands to oil and gas development without public comment or review. Again, courts had to override those decisions. Forgotten already, apparently, was Interior secretary Gale Norton’s specific promise in her confirmation hearing to comply with NEPA, not amend or attempt to evade it. Now, she complains, "It can take six months to prepare environmental planning documents for even the most routine forest treatments. . . . Once completed, these projects are often challenged, leading to lengthy protests, appeals, and litigation." Since the forests to be "treated" by chainsaw and feller buncher often took hundreds of years to grow, a thorough review of their fate doesn’t seem so much to ask.

Could it get worse? Yes, if citizens are limited in their ability to bring environmental lawsuits. The Idaho Cattle Association is now pressing the administration to limit NEPA lawsuits to "individuals who have an economic stake in the outcome of a NEPA decision." In response to last summer’s forest fires, President Bush declared his intention to eliminate the right of citizens to contest logging in national forests. Under his proposal, any project the U.S. Forest Service says would combat fire would be immune from challenge. The Forest Service also proposed exempting forest-management plans from environmental review, effectively shielding these public lands from public oversight.

Not everyone is going along quietly with the return to secret government. The New York Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch have all editorialized against it. They were joined by John Cornyn, the new Republican senator from Texas. "Frankly," he commented during his campaign, "if there’s one thing I could change, it would be to try to persuade the administration to be less closed when it comes to what they’re doing."

But nothing has slowed the rush to exclude the American people from participation in their own government. The administration’s zeal recalls the example of the early Federalist and Whig parties, which believed that only the economic elite had the necessary wisdom and virtue to make decisions for the nation. A new elite in Washington is asserting its privilege, and the sunshine is fading fast.


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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