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Why the GOP Changed Little In Environment

WITH an enthusiastic new Congress eager to strip off layers of environmental regulation, an eco-activist might expect to find the landscape at year's end strewn with fallen timber, industrial waste, endangered species, and distraught greens.

But a funny thing happened on the way toward half-time for the 104th Congress. Grass-roots conservationists got aroused, moderate Republicans got organized, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia got anxious, and the Clinton administration got religion on an issue it saw as important in 1996, an election year.

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As a result, the list of environmental actions completed by lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Congress this past year was distinctly short: a temporary moratorium on the listing of plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act and the opening of more federal lands to logging here in the Pacific Northwest.

"We clearly are strategically out of position on the environment," Speaker Gingrich told a gathering of newspaper editors in November. "We approached it the wrong way with the wrong language."

Among those things left undone: Major changes to laws protecting air and water, reform of the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup act, permanent restrictions on species protection, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and a requirement that private property owners be compensated if government regulations lower their land's value. All were either blocked or are stalled on Capitol Hill.

Gingrich got anxious, moderate Republicans got organized, and the administration got an election-year issue.

Leaders of the GOP revolution concede their lack of success.

"I'll be real straight with you - we have lost the debate on the environment," House GOP whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas told The Wall Street Journal. "There was a regulatory-reform strategy that deteriorated into an environmental issue, and it cost us."

What Mr. DeLay was referring to was the emphasis on bolstering constitutional protections against the "taking" of private property while also injecting such economic ideas as "risk assessment" and "cost-benefit ratios" into government regulations.

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While people generally favor such notions, polls show, they also strongly value a clean environment and protection of natural resources. Of those surveyed last summer by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Robert Teeter, 79 percent thought environmental regulations should stay the same or be strengthened; just 19 percent wanted less regulation.

The political momentum in Washington began shifting in the spring, when activists called grass-roots groups to arms during the 25th annual Earth Day.

The main symbol for activists was passage of a spending rescissions bill. This included a provision suspending environmental laws to provide for the "salvage logging" of forests in the West judged to be vulnerable to fire and disease. When the chain saws began roaring, hundreds of protesters were arrested.

PERHAPS the most telling shift was within the GOP. A group of 50 moderate Republicans began breaking ranks to join with Democrats in resisting deep cuts in environmental spending and radical changes to such things as wetlands and endangered species protection.

A new organization called Republicans for Environmental Protection emerged. William Ruckelshaus and William Reilly, who had headed the EPA in Republican administrations, spoke out against what they saw as their party's extreme positions.

In response to growing dissent within his own party, Gingrich appointed a House task force on the environment headed by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican with a strong environmental record. An internal memo from the House Republican Conference in October suggested tree plantings and visits to recycling centers as ways for GOP lawmakers to bolster their image on the environment.

All this stirring on the other side of the trenches emboldened President Clinton to speak out more on the environment, especially when activists delivered 1.2 million signatures on an "Environmental Bill of Rights" to Congress in November.

In early December, he vetoed a budget bill that would have opened the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. And a week before Christmas, Mr. Clinton vetoed EPA and Interior Department appropriations bills he said would "roll back decades of bipartisan environmental protection."

"All of this is important and encouraging," says Greg Wetstone, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Still, activists remain wary. "We do not approach 1996 sanguine," says Jean Freedberg of the Sierra Club.

The administration may have to compromise further to end budgetary gridlock. Long-sought reforms - on hardrock mining law and grazing policy in the West, for example - remain elusive goals. As the next national election approaches, partisans on both sides are just as likely to harden positions as they are to concede some ground.

All the environmental battles of 1995 remain to be fought to conclusion this year - during an election cycle that will challenge the staying power of both Clinton and the Republican Congress.

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