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Newt Gingrich and company roll back a generation of environmental protections

Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Contract With America, US Capitol

Newt Gingrich (C), Speaker of the US House of Representatives, holds up a copy of the 'Contract With America' during a speech on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on April 7th, 1995.


Gaston Roberge is more than 80 years old and blind in one eye, has undergone chemotherapy and survived three heart attacks. He and his wife, Monique, owned some land in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, which they had hoped to sell in order to pay for expensive medical treatments for Gaston. Unfortunately for the cause of environmental protection everywhere, a bureaucrat named Jay Clement in the Army Corps of Engineers wrote a memo in 1987 that was later leaked to the media, suggesting that “Roberge would be a good one to squash and set an example.” The Roberge property was declared a wetland and the sale killed.

Roberge set an example all right, though hardly the kind Clement had in mind. Roberge immediately became an octogenarian poster child for the burgeoning property-rights movement that has grown up around the nation during the past decade. Backed by agriculture-and industry-trade associations and lobbyists for large energy, mining, farming and timber companies, aggrieved landowners across America have banded together to fight environmentalists with a grass-roots movement of their own. Together with the similarly corporate backed and funded Wise Use movement — which seeks to open up public lands across the West to private use — this amalgam of conservative local and regional alliances has proved to be the shock troops of a crusade that is now poised to raze the structures of U.S. health, safety and environmental protection. Its spearhead is the new Republican Congress, which, together with conservative Democratic allies, is in the process of rolling back almost an entire generation of protections of America’s natural resources and quality of life.

A sea change in American politics has taken place during the past two years, whereby environmentalists and their opponents appear to have switched sides. Instead of being associated with fat-cat polluters happy to make a profit even if it poisons our children, the anti-environmentalist position has become identified with folks like the Roberges. Meanwhile, it’s the environmentalists who are now portrayed as the bad guys, hiring lots of lawyers, consorting with congressmen and partying with the Clintons. Scruffy “green is beautiful” types have, according to the received wisdom of the Brave Newt World, thrown away their Earth shoes and replaced them with Gucci loafers — so much the better for “squashing” little people.

The result is that the Republicans are in the midst of passing a series of laws that, had they been in effect 10 years ago, “would have prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from banning lead from our gasoline, cancer-causing benzene from our drinking water and dangerous chemicals like DDT from our food,” as EPA Administrator Carol Browner recently explained in an interview with Rolling Stone.

Just how have the Republicans managed to ram this through in the face of poll results that found protecting the environment is an extremely popular goal with voters? After all, 76 percent of voters polled want clean-drinking-water standards strengthened; 57 percent want the Endangered Species Act to be maintained; and only 18 percent want to see environmental-protection laws weakened. Well, the GOP has crafted an ingenious method of destroying environmental protections without even appearing to bring up the subject. Using what Browner calls a Trojan-horse strategy, the Republicans — with conservative Democratic support — are passing new bills relating to “risk assessment” and “sound science.” These bills, Browner claims, are actually designed to “casually dismantle every environmental law in this country … in the dark of night.”

The Republicans are already enjoying some success in the new Congress with their effort to do away with unfunded mandates. These regulations are mandated by Congress but don’t include the money necessary to help states and other localities enforce them. Supported by President Clinton, this measure would mean the federal government couldn’t, for instance, require a more effective method of keeping dangerous lead paint out of the mouths of children unless it funds the new method upfront. The original Republican plan, as it appeared in Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” would have applied even to regulations already on the books. An effort by Democrats to make exceptions in cases in which the lives of pregnant women, children and others were at risk was rejected, but the GOP has at least agreed to protect current environmental and safety standards.

No such dynamic appears to be at work in the centerpiece of the Republican effort to do away with environmental protection under the guise of “regulatory reform.” Indeed, the House, led by Newt Gingrich and his lieutenant, Dick Armey, has already passed three separate bills, while the Senate, led by presidential hopefuls Phil Gramm and Majority Leader Bob Dole, is pushing its own, even more Draconian versions.

One House bill would force every regulatory agency to institute a litany of new cost-benefit and risk-assessment analyses before a new rule or regulation can be issued. Assuming the new regulation survived the gantlet of analyses, industry representatives would be allowed to delay these regulations by participating in peer-review panels, regardless of whether they had any financial interest in doing so. For instance, a timber-company executive might be asked to review a law protecting an endangered species in the Northwest woods.

With all the new red tape and court challenges, we might be talking about decades of delays and billions of dollars in taxpayer legal fees. The Office of Management and Budget would have the right to review all new regulations and veto the ones it didn’t like. (The Republicans are clearly planning for 1996, when they expect to reoccupy the White House.)

A second House bill would declare a moratorium on all new federal regulations for about a year — allowing corporations to pollute while new laws are being written. The White House has indicated that Clinton will probably veto the moratorium. (The Republicans graciously agreed to exempt duck hunting, though not food and workplace protection, nuclear-waste disposal or aircraft safety.)

The third bill, and that most clearly aimed as a sop to the property-rights people, is allegedly designed to prevent a process called takings. This proposal, which sailed through the House with significant conservative Democratic support, would interpret the Fifth Amendment protection from arbitrary seizure of property without just compensation to mean that property owners could force the government to reimburse them for any action that reduced the value of privately owned land by as little as 20 percent due to a regulation protecting wetlands, endangered species, water rights or the U.S. coastal zone. Since a cash-strapped government could never afford to compensate each and every property owner in this manner, the government’s role in helping to protect and manage these resources would in effect end.

In yet another stealth attack on the environment, Republicans have recently talked about freezing the current listings on the Endangered Species Act while withholding new authorization money to enforce the current provisions. (The House has already passed a moratorium on future listings.) The GOP is also planning changes in the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts and the toxic-waste cleanup Superfund law.

Meanwhile, some Republicans, led by House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, hope to eliminate funding for both the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Biological Service, thereby paralyzing the government’s ability to plan for natural disasters and track the loss of various plant and animal life, which is necessary to enforce the Endangered Species Act.

In part the Republican strategy is driven by pure ideology. Jerry Taylor, director of natural-resource studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, speaks admiringly of “these freshman Republicans who just want to tear this government apart brick by brick.” Gingrich calls the EPA “a highly centralized command bureaucracy artificially trying to impose its judgment with almost no knowledge of local conditions.” But if taken seriously, the net effect of the risk-assessment legislation will be to create even more levels of bureaucracy and a far more expensive (and lawyer-dominated) set of regulations.

But ideology is only part of the story. Many of these ideas have considerable power in Congress because they will make the corporate interests who fund our election system through trade-association PACs more profitable. The November election gave much of corporate America what it perceives to be a golden opportunity to bring back the good old days of unregulated pollution and destruction of our natural resources. The regulatory portions of the “Contract With America” were written with “every trade association that counts,” according to one participant. The ensuing legislation will create potential windfalls for the petrochemical industries, mining companies, corporate farming businesses and many others. For instance, the risk-assessment legislation in the House was rewritten to benefit the pesticide industry, allowing new pesticides to be approved without all the red tape and rigmarole that new regulations require — proof that the GOP’s ideology is only selectively applied.

The timber industry seems to be in a league of its own, however, and in a stunning coup before the House Appropriations Committee, recently won passage of an amendment that would double the amount of timber that corporations are allowed to cut on federal land and within the national-forest system. One environmental lobbyist called the measure “the most far-reaching assault on national forests in the 13 years I’ve been here.”

Under normal political circumstances, we might be able to depend on the more moderate elders of the Senate to keep the young ideologues in line. Gingrich himself, in a telling admission, has explained that the legislation he is ramming through is “not locked in stone” because “the Senate is not going to take the House bills in toto.” Yet Republican presidential politics may undermine Gingrich’s strangely comforting admission. True, some moderate Republicans remain, though as the Sierra Club’s Daniel J. Weiss says, “They’re hard to find, and they’re scared.” Environmentalists are betting almost all of their chips on the highly respected chair of the Senate’s environment committee, John Chafee of Rhode Island. Chafee called the risk-assessment provisions passed by the House a “prescription for gridlock” and a “regulatory straitjacket.” Chafee is well positioned either to rewrite the House legislation or to attempt to block it entirely. In doing so, however, he will have two problems: Their names are Dole and Gramm.

During the Reagan-Bush years, Bob Dole acted as a moderate brake on his more ideologically adventurous colleagues. But for exactly this reason, Dole is considered suspect by the party’s right wing, which supplies most of the troops in the primaries. Moreover, he is locked in a fund-raising battle with the more ideologically driven Gramm, who comes to the party with the big-pocketed Texas-oil interests behind him. Dole, therefore, may have decided to switch sides in the environmental and regulatory debates in order to ease the fears of the Republican base and shore up his fund-raising prospects for 1996. Earlier this year he promised a group of farmers to put a “clamp on environmental restrictions.” Dole’s retroactive regulatory measures would tie up even more laws and agencies than the House version. Whether Chafee and the remaining Republican moderates will be able to resist the onslaught from these party heavyweights when the bills come up for a vote in the Senate is, at best, a tenuous hope.

Roughly a quarter of the remaining congressional Democrats have decided to join the Republican jihad. Moderates and liberals — still nursing their bruises from the election and adapting themselves to minority status — have yet to come together with a coherent strategy to slow down the Gingrich-Dole steamroller.

The White House, meanwhile, sees itself as caught in a political bind. Many of the laws that inspired the Republican counterrevolution, particularly the Safe Drinking Water Act and Superfund law, require rewriting. The former, according to Carol Browner, needs strengthening, while the latter demands an overhaul. Bill Clinton is extremely sympathetic, both ideologically and temperamentally, to the idea of streamlining regulatory reform. (Remember reinventing government?)

Clearly his original inclination was to work with the new Republican Congress to fashion a compromise between environmental protection and decreased regulation. At the first meeting with the House leadership, Clinton announced his desire to work with Gingrich and company. The initial testimony of administration officials was also extremely supportive of Republican efforts. But as Clinton tried to move closer to the Republican position, the Republicans, driven by the internal politics of their own debate, kept moving the line further and further right.

By the time of the floor votes, according to one senior White House official, the administration was unanimous in deciding to “draw a line in the sand” — at least on declaring a moratorium on new regulations. In a speech given just before the House vote, Clinton blamed “a small army of special-interest lobbyists [that knows it] can never get away with an outright repeal of consumer or environmental protection” but is nonetheless attempting to “paralyze the government by process.” “They don’t want reform,” he said, “they really want rigor mortis.”

But the political implications remain a minefield for a president who still hasn’t made up his mind whether to run as a populist or as a centrist consensus builder. When asked if Clinton had unequivocally promised Browner to veto the risk-assessment and takings legislation, she replied rather rhetorically that the president has “personally promised me that he will not be a party to the undermining of the health of this country.” In other words, no. The White House is currently waiting to see the final bills.

Browner’s efforts notwithstanding, Clinton’s presidency has been marked by a steady retreat on almost every position of environmental substance that he and Al Gore took during the campaign. In March 1993 the administration licensed a hazardous-waste incinerator near an elementary-school neighborhood in East Liverpool, Ohio, despite the fact that Gore blasted the plant during the 1992 campaign. Lacking support in its own party, the administration has been forced to back down on its plan to charge ranchers and mining companies a fair market price for exploiting government land, while Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently agreed to a major increase in the number of cruise ships allowed to visit Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park.

And the EPA has delayed enforcement of the standards and penalties enunciated in the Clean Air Act in numerous localities, even though a major new study reveals that people living in the most polluted cities are 15 to 17 percent more likely to die prematurely. (This constant backtracking led Jay Hair, the generally moderate president of the National Wildlife Federation, to call the administration’s environmental decisions “date rape.”)

According to a senior White House official, the Clinton strategic calculation is as follows: “The Republicans want to position the president as pro regulation, probig and intrusive government. Politically we have to show that we ‘get it.’ Having done that, we can and must draw a sharp line with them: We are the party that will protect families, consumers and the environment, while they are flacking for the big-money interests.”

Clinton’s dilemma would be eased considerably if the country still boasted a broadly based grass-roots environmental movement to offset some of the political and ideological pressure generated by those very big-moneyed interests. Unfortunately, the large environmental organizations are almost uniformly in terrible shape. With contributions and membership way down, they are cutting staff and shedding members at an alarming rate. According to Jim Maddy, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, “We’ve done a miserable job of organizing our supporters into a political force.”A quick reading of Congress confirms that diagnosis. Patty Murray, the environmentalist senator from Washington, says, “I don’t get a lot of letters from voters saying, ‘You better not undo the Endangered Species Act.'”

The great irony here is that despite enforcement problems and some admittedly clumsy legislation, the nation really requires more environmental protection, not less. Nearly 100 million Americans still live in areas where the legal standards for lead, smog, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide are not being met. Forty percent of our rivers and lakes are too polluted for drinking, fishing and swimming. Lead paint and dilapidated housing stock continue to cause brain damage and ailments in alarming numbers of the nation’s innercity youths. One in four Americans lives within four miles of a toxic dump. Salmon, meanwhile, are disappearing from the nation’s rivers: The population of the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest has decreased from 16 million to less than a million. Global climatological issues have disappeared off the national agenda entirely.

The list could continue almost indefinitely. Cryptosporidium, a parasite that killed more than 100 people and sickened 400,000 others in a 1993 outbreak, is present in approximately half of the nation’s water supply. As EPA spokeswoman Sylvia Lawrance points out, almost without exception, the dangers of leaving our resources unprotected fall most heavily on the weakest members of the population: “When most of us encounter cryptosporidium,” for example, “we’re just going to get sick to our stomachs.” But for people who have weakened immune systems because of AIDS or are undergoing chemotherapy (like, say, Gaston Roberge did), “there are catastrophic implications.”

While many Americans fear the economic impact of protecting the environment, safeguarding our natural resources, done wisely and prudently, need not conflict with job creation. True, certain tradeoffs are necessary — as with any serious public-policy choice. But according to a recent study by the liberal Economic Policy Institute, in Washington, environmental protection actually raises overall employment levels because it requires labor-intensive production. Unfortunately, a reasoned, intelligent discussion of the topic is inconceivable in a debate accurately characterized by Carol Browner as “dismantling… by sound bite.”

Patty Murray says her greatest fear is that one day one of her grandchildren will see a picture of a salmon and ask Grandma what it is. Unless environmentalists figure out a way to get Americans to vote the way they say they feel, that day is almost here. 

In This Article: Coverwall


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