As the usually restrained columnist David Broder puts it in
TheWashington Post, "the Republicans, as far as anyone can
tell, are preparing to take the country on the greatest leap backward in
If Republicans can get away with calling what is happening on Capitol
Hill "environmental reform," then the Nazi blitz of London during World
War II could have been called urban renewal.
Many of the stories that the conservatives in control of Congress are
telling to justify their ferocious assault on the nation's environmental
and public health protection laws are fabrications:
"The constitutional interpretation right now is that if an owl flies
and lands on your land [then] that owl gets all of your land and you are
not compensated." Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wa.).
"[Toxic-substance regulation] would have cost the wood preserving
industry $5.7 trillion per premature death averted. This huge amount would
prevent one cancer case every 2.9 million years." Rep. Charles Norwood
"Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Columbus, Ohio, must monitor a
pesticide that is only used to grow pineapples. I do not know how many
pineapples are grown in Columbus." Rep. Robert Walker (D-Pa.).
"One of those regulations was a rule that apparently
would bar the tooth fairy in the United States. It was a requirement that
every dentist not give baby teeth back to [the baby's] parents." Rep.
David McIntosh (R-In.).
These and many other horror stories about regulatory excesses are
being told by those who now hope to rapidly dismantle the system
painstakingly built up over the years to protect Americans and their
They share one distinctive trait: they are lies. The distortions are
being deliberately or carelessly purveyed by conservative Republicans as
they methodically slash away at the federal government's ability to
control pollution, to safeguard public health, to improve worker safety,
and to preserve public lands and resources.
There is certainly room for reform in environmental laws and in the
way some of them are interpreted and enforced. The landmark environmental
statutes of the 1970s brought sweeping changes in the way the country does
business. Changes of that magnitude inevitably bring some inefficiency and
misplaced priorities. Some money has been misspent, and some Americans
have been made the victims of bureaucratic ineptitude and
But Republicans aided, it must be said, by a
number of Southern Democrats have mounted a fierce, sustained, unrelenting
war on the environmental.
They are seeking to gut the landmark environmental statutes that have
been passed since the first Earth Day in 1970, starting with the Clean
Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act, and then the
toxic waste and pesticide laws, and, with particular venom, the Endangered
Species Act. Others are also targeted.
In case they can't get away with undoing regulations that restrain
polluters, Republicans will use the budget to make sure regulatory
agencies do not have the resources to carry out what remains of the laws.
As this was written, a House Appropriations Subcommittee had voted to
reduce the budget of the already overburdened and understaffed
Environmental Protection Agency by 33 percent. EPA Administrator Carol
Browner calls this "the clearest evidence to date there is a concerted,
systematic effort by Republicans to undermine public health and take away
the tools we need to do the job the American people expect us to do."
They are also manipulating the budget to try to
blackmail the President into signing anti-environmental legislation he
might otherwise veto. There may yet be an attempt to require opening the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, a move
rejected by Congress several times over recent years. If the President
vetoes the appropriation bill to preserve the Arctic environment, there
will, temporarily at least, be no money to run the EPA.
Probably the single most effective weapon Republicans
have devised to paralyze federal efforts to protect Americans is their
disingenuously styled "regulatory reform" legislation. This legislation,
already passed by the House but derailed by a Democratic filibuster in the
Senate, would require that rules drafted by federal agencies be subjected
to intricate and staggeringly expensive cost/benefit analysis before
This ploy makes a mockery of Republicans' complaints that federal
environmental protection is excessively bureaucratic and expensive. If
enacted, it would add new layers of bureaucracy and millions some say
billions of dollars to regulation costs. It would chill efforts to control
pollution by undoing major provisions of almost every pollution control
law passed in the last 25 years.
"Takings" legislation would require the federal government to pay
landowners if they are required to take actions to protect the environment
that reduces the value of their property. If a developer buys a swamp and
plans to drain it to build a shopping mall, and then the government says
he can't because it is a protected wetland, the government would have to
compensate for the loss of profit he would theoretically have made from
building the mall.
This is a bureaucratic nightmare that could drain billions of dollars
from the Treasury and allow environmental law to be flouted by property
owners, especially big corporations with huge landholdings.
Republicans also are trying to weaken the power of individuals to
protect themselves in court. Proposed "tort reform" laws would make it
harder to sue corporations. The reform would substantially limit damages
that could be collected by the injured, and a "loser pays" provision means
that anyone suing General Motors or Exxon, with their limitless resources,
would have to pay the corporation's legal costs if it won the case.
Republicans captured Congress in 1994 because, as the
writer Joe Davis noted in a publication of the Natural Resources Defense
Council, "[W]e have a public that is convinced that Congress is little
more than an amalgam of thieving rascals and special interests."
The irony is that, as a result of the election, we now have what Davis
calls "a Congress that is living up to that myth. Never in recent history
have big bucks special interests chemicals, oil, coal, timber, mining,
real estate and agri-giants had a freer hand to loot the nation's
Looking at the scope of their agenda, it is clear that Republicans are
planning to turn back the clock a full century to the days of the robber
barons, when a rapacious few were able to ravage public lands and
resources to accumulate great wealth, when industries were allowed to
engage in practices that sickened and killed people and put their workers
Republicans have already proposed selling off
national parks, particularly those most used by urban dwellers. They want
to allow logging, grazing and mining on what are now protected federal
lands. They want to allow a foreign company to mine gold at the edge of
Yellowstone National Park and risk contaminating park waters. Resource
industries and land developers, supported by states' rights and property
rights ideologues, are lobbying hard for the transfer of federal lands to
the states, where they will become easier pickings.
Industries are getting a sympathetic hearing in Congress. In fact,
theirs are often the only voices heard. Committee hearings on
environmental issues are frequently stacked with opponents of
environmental protection. Environmentalists and other supporters are not
let into the committee hearing room, and even their written submissions
are not entered in the record. A bill introduced by Sen. Slade Gorton
(R-NA) to drastically weaken the Endangered Species Act was actually
written by representatives of industries that oppose the current
Water from federal lands now reserved for urban areas
and for wildlife needs in the water-scarce West may be rediverted to serve
powerful agribusiness interests. If the Republican Congress is able to
follow through on its agenda for public lands and resources, it will
return the nation to conditions that existed before the progressive
reforms adopted during the Roosevelt Administration, which emphasized
public control of those resources as an issue of democracy. Since then,
the public domain has been protected for the benefit of all the people,
not just the rich, the powerful and the politically influential.
Republicans came to power calling themselves conservatives. But my
dictionary defines a conservative as "one who adheres to traditional
time-tested, long-standing methods, procedures or views: a moderate
cautious or discreet person."
With their reckless attack on time-tested, long-standing federal
methods and procedures for curbing abuses of economic power, providing
equal justice for all citizens, shielding consumers from fraud and abuse,
and protecting public health, safety and the environment, the Republicans
who now dominate the legislative agenda have proven that they are no
Some have called themselves revolutionaries. But for good or evil, a
revolution creates a new political and social order. These are not
revolutionaries they are reactionaries seeking to roll back 100 years or
more of social progress. The anti-environment activities of Congress are
certainly contrary to public will. Opinion polls show that most Americans
support strong environmental protection.
Until recently, the phrase "conservative environmentalist" would not
have been considered an oxymoron. Protection of the environment enjoyed
bipartisan support until Ronald Reagan became president. Indeed, some of
the most effective defenders of the environment remaining in Congress
today are old-line Republican conservatives. But they are a tiny minority,
without honor in their own party.
So far, the Republican assault has not succeeded in tearing down the
edifice of environmental protection Americans have built up over the
years. If we're lucky, they may prove unable to wreak irremediable damage.
Some of their excesses may be tempered by public outrage, and President
Bill Clinton's veto may prevent some atrocities.
That is why the 1996 national election will be one of the most crucial
in the nation's history. If the Republican right retains its working
majority in Congress and is joined by a Dole or a Gramm or a Gingrich or
(one's flesh crawls to think of it) a Buchanan in the White House, the
federal shield that guards the American people and our environment will be
Philip Shabecoff reported for the New York
Times for 32 years and is founding editor of Greenwire. This
essay appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Washington Spectator,
and is reprinted with permission.