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

An Overview of the 104th Congress

Air Date: Week of

Host Jan Nunley reviews some possible environmental policy changes likely under the new Republican Congressional majority and the Contract With America.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. The 104th Congress has hit the ground running, racing to make good on Republican promises to reduce the size and scope of the Federal Government. And that could mean big changes for environmental policy. Many conservatives see the recent elections as a mandate for major changes in the way we deal with environmental issues. Others caution that when it comes to the environment, voters don't want to stray far from the status quo. This week on Living on Earth, we'll be exploring the new majority's views on environmental policy with 2 GOP legislators: a conservative freshman representative and a moderate veteran senator. First, a sampling of opinion from the pundits.

It's important to note that the environment hardly gained a mention in last fall's elections. The word "environment" doesn't even appear in the campaign's defining document, Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. But many conservatives say the contract, and the election itself, gave voice to widespread frustration with Washington's chronic inability to deliver the goods it promises, including protecting the environment. Jerry Taylor is a resource analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank with close ties to conservative Republicans.

TAYLOR: The Federal Government can't grow corn very well. It can't deliver the mail very well. It's virtually incapable at doing anything about poverty in our cities. Yet somehow we expect it to micro-manage thousands of different eco-systems. I think that that idea, frankly, collides with everything we know about government action. And I think the voters realize it.

NUNLEY: One part of the contract that may have the biggest impact on environmental legislation is a promise to end unfunded Federal mandates. Bills to end mandates imposed but not funded by Washington were the first issue on which both House and Senate took action. They rushed through committee hearings at lightning speed in the session's first weeks. Other elements of the GOP contract could have serious consequences for the environment. Conservative Republicans want to strengthen the rights of private property owners over public interest restrictions such as protections for endangered species or wetlands. And that includes payment to land owners for nearly any infringement on the use of their property caused by government action. Conservatives also want to weigh new Federal environmental regulations in the exacting scale of risk assessment, with Federal agencies such as the EPA required to balance the benefits of every new regulation against its likely burdens.

An extraordinary amount of environmental legislation awaits action this session. The Clean Water Act, the Farm Bill, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Magnuson Fisheries Act are only a few of those up for reauthorization. But they may be upstaged by two main issues. John Shanahan of the influential conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation.

SHANAHAN: I think the two laws that you're going to see pushed early on are reforms made to Endangered Species and Superfund. There will also be some movement towards oversight in changes in the Clean Air Act in terms of the way it's implemented, but I think that that's a back seat to the concepts of Superfund and the Endangered Species, which are very important to both conservatives and environmentalists.

NUNLEY: Of course, the down and dirty battles over environmental issues will be fought in the halls and committee hearing rooms of Congress. And the battle lines may be drawn not so much between Republicans and Democrats as between the Republican House and the Republican Senate. GOP moderates make up key voting blocks in both houses, but there are significant differences in the leadership. The Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor.

TAYLOR: I think the House whip Tom DeLay is one of the major players in the environmental scene. Tom is a Republican, of course, from Texas. He used to be a small businessman. And he feels about environmental regulations the way the Cambodian people probably feel about Pol Pot. He's very suspicious of them and very hostile. In the Senate side I think John Chafee's the key player. The environmentalists had probably more to agree with about, with John Chafee than they did with the Democrats.

NUNLEY: Now, among the chief players will be 2 members from Alaska, Senator Frank Murkowski and Representative Don Young. Both are conservatives heading important environmental committees, and both favor opening up the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. Ultimately, the fate of all these concerns may rest on how influential lawmakers read the results of November's elections. Opponents say the GOP proposals could dismantle old laws and hamstring new environmental initiatives. And they point to polls suggesting that despite the GOP sweep, voters may side with environmentalists who criticize the contract. In last fall's elections, nearly every ballot initiative aimed at reducing environmental regulation failed. And a recent Newsweek poll found 73% of voters opposed eliminating or weakening environmental laws. William Roberts of the Environmental Defense Fund says wholesale changes aren't in order.

ROBERTS: I don't necessarily think it would be right for anybody to look at the election results and say all of a sudden that the American people are against healthy air, against drinking water that's safe for their kids to drink, or against protecting some of our natural heritage. I think what they're looking for is a smart, leaner, and meaner way to do that. And I think that we're supportive of that as anybody else is.

NUNLEY: But Cato's Jerry Taylor maintains that Roberts and other environmentalists are hopelessly out of touch.

TAYLOR: The environmental lobby is in a state of denial, I think, about how little clout they really have with the American people. And that's all that matters when you're talking to a politician about a political agenda. How much clout do you have with the American people? How much support will I get at the polls for these positions? That's the real, uh, that's the real political commodity of trade in Washington. And the environmentalists are broke.

NUNLEY: Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute.



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