Turning Right on Green


As the usually restrained columnist David Broder puts it in The Washington Post, "the Republicans, as far as anyone can tell, are preparing to take the country on the greatest leap backward in American history."

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:

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 environment.

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 arrogance.

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 implemented.

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 treasures."

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 at risk.

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 act.

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 conservatives.

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 smashed.

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.

Contents Page

© Copyright by POINT, 1995

Last modified 9/13/95