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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Outlook for Republican Cooperation

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood interviews William Reilly, head of the EPA in the Bush Adminstration, on his projections for the 104th Congress. Reilly gives some perspective on what common ground lies between conservative and more moderate Republicans in the term ahead and what Democrats ought to expect.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the 104th Congress gets underway, most of the attention has been on likely flash points between the 2 parties. But when one looks at environmental issues, the most important fights probably won't be between the Democrats and the GOP, but among the Republicans themselves. Alongside the large new group of conservative lawmakers, there's also a powerful group of veteran Republican moderates, especially in the Senate, where Rhode Island's John Chaffee, Oregon's Mark Hatfield, and Vermont's Jim Jeffords are long-time advocates of environmental regulation who are now in key positions of power. William Reilly headed the Environmental Protection Agency during the Bush Administration. He's now a Visiting Professor at Stanford University. I asked him how he expects environmental issues to play out in the new Republican Congress.

REILLY: Well, there are two ways of looking at the environment. One is to say that the protections that we've built up over the years have required a great deal of government control and intrusion. And they're part and parcel of the bureaucratic excesses that a lot of people who have just been elected to Congress have run against. And so, from that perspective, they're likely to have problems with EPA, with a lot of the environmental laws that are on the books. There is another way of looking at it, and I think some conservatives historically have taken this approach, and that is that - that conserving the natural resources, the productive ecosystems on which all life depends, is the very essence of conservatism. Is serious, responsible. And not only that, but our efforts to do this over the past 20 years have been the greatest success story in modern governmental history in the United States, of which we ought to be proud. Now, I can recall a conversation I had with Newt Gingrich, just probably a few months after I took office in 1989 as EPA Administrator. When he looked at the condition of the party and said to me, he said, "You know, you are going to have a more difficult time than almost everybody else in the Bush Administration. Because our party has been hearing for the last 8 years at least that your issue, the environmental issue, is a trivial issue. Or worse, it's a Democratic issue." But he said, "As I understand what you're doing, you are reframing that issue and looking for new means to solve environmental problems. With economic incentives, with science-based standards, voluntary programs, comparative risk assessment, cost-benefit analysis." And the message that I would deliver to this Congress is, let's redirect our environmental energies into these kinds of approaches. They have the support of mayors and governors. They can continue to command support from the public at large, which by the way, shows no signs of losing interest or support for the environment.

CURWOOD: Who do you think are going to be the most important players in the environment in Capitol Hill during the 104th Congress?

REILLY: We're obviously going to see the new leadership in the House play a significant role. I think they are likely to take on the Superfund Reauthorization. It's a statute that has to be reauthorized in this Congress. The money is going to run out under the Taxing Authority this year. So that's likely to be a major issue on the part of speaker Gingrich and majority leader Army. You will see some of the new committee chairmen play key roles. Congressman Tom Blyly of Virginia is going to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee with somewhat reduced authority. My sense is that we're going to see an across-the-board effort to rein in unfunded mandates and to pass fairly early in the new Congress a requirement that any new regulation that's promulgated out of Washington be accompanied by assistance from the Federal Government. If it's to be, if it's to entail cost, that obviously could impact across the board on many environmental laws.

CURWOOD: Let's talk a bit about the Senate panel on the environment. The Environment Public Works Committee is chaired now by John Chaffee of Rhode Island. And a number of environmental activists really like his record. But the panel that he's leading has a number of people that would have lower ratings from environmental activists. What do you think he's going to be able to do?

REILLY: Well you know those - those ratings in my view disregard the fact that some of the people whose ratings haven't been so great have been terrific on key aspects of our environmental achievements over the years. Senator Alan Simpson, for example, of Wyoming, was critical to our passing the Clean Air Act in the form that we have it. Senator Domenici gave us great support on that. Senator Chaffee's an old hand, a very sophisticated, experienced, and savvy legislative operator. I think he's going to be sensitive to some of the priorities that we, that we see identified in the House. He's obviously heard the same message that much the rest of the Congress has heard about the need to downsize government and have more cost-effective government. But I think he's also likely to be friendly to the kind of approach I've just outlined, where you do ask, are there real problems associated with this problem we're going to try to correct? How does it compare with other problems that we might spend the money on? Is it worth it? You ask those kinds of questions, I think you have the basis for downsizing to some degree. Even the EPA operation. But getting it more focused, getting it more directed in solving some of these problems.

CURWOOD: One of the issues that's been coming up a lot, as we've talked to people in the incoming Congress, is the Endangered Species Act. What do you think will happen with the Endangered Species Act on Capitol Hill this time?

REILLY: I think there's very likely, frankly, to be a standoff on Endangered Species. The Wise Use Movement and some of the more ideologically fervent critics of that law have cast the issue as one that they really intend to make a great deal of. And I think to some degree have caricatured the law. On the other hand, the law is out of date. It needs reform; it needs to be adjusted to what we now understand about species' needs and habitat requirements. It needs to take a regional approach rather than just looking, one, at species by species when the wreck is about to occur. There are significant forces in Congress, I think, that are not simply going to ask the question, "What's wrong with this law?" but, "How can we continue to accord species protection while we promote economic growth and development and jobs?" And to the extent you ask that question, I think you'll get a more acceptable and probably enactable reform of that law.

CURWOOD: What advice do you have for the present EPA chief Carol Browner? How should she be preparing for this session?

REILLY: You know, I think the issue coming up in this Congress with respect to any number of pieces of legislation can be framed in terms of ends versus means. She could choose to defend a whole welter of environmental laws and approaches that by and large have been successful. In my view, though, that would be a mistake. The kinds of approaches that have brought us as far as we've come, I don't think are so suited to deal with the problems we've got right now. Back 20-some years ago, the major problem we had, say, with respect to pollution, was a small number, a relatively small number, of extremely large sources of pollution. Those problems have largely been addressed. They're either under control or under court order or government directive to get under control. The big problem we've got now is individual behavior, or smaller businesses, dry cleaners, gas stations, print, printing companies, that now in the aggregate add up to a number of problems. Those are a different kind of problem, and I think they're suitable for different kinds of solutions. I would also, if I were running EPA now, acknowledge that this Congress is not just creating this sense of excessive governmental intrusion and bureaucracy out of whole cloth. It's the country that's concerned, and the governors and the mayors. I think I would start looking to cooperate in reforming some of the environmental laws on the books, and hope that the Republicans in Congress remember that once before, back in the early Reagan Administration, the Republican administration caused the country at least to think that they were not just pursuing new means, but abandoning the goals of environmental protection. And quickly discovered that wasn't going to work. They got their heads handed to them. They're smart people, I think, running this Congress, and I don't think they're going to make that mistake.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking all of this time with us today. William Reilly was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Bush Administration. Thank you, sir.

REILLY: You're very welcome.



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