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

What's Up on the Hill?

Air Date: Week of

Tim Noah of the Wall Street Journal speaks with host Steve Curwood about President Clinton's lack of true commitment on environmental protection issues, and how legislation pending in Congress will affect the environment.


CURWOOD: The conservative Republican drive in Congress to scale back government is deep into the environment. They've already passed laws that freeze new listings under the Endangered Species Act and limit Federal mandates that cost the states money to enforce. But the House Republicans are now running into some opposition over more controversial proposals. One bill would halt all new Federal rules. Another would pay private property owners if environmental laws cut the value of their land. And a third would open more wetlands for development. Tim Noah reports for the Wall Street Journal's Washington Bureau, and he's been keeping an eye on environmental legislation.

NOAH: There's a big movement in Congress to slow down on the environment, and I think to some extent they're responding to a popular movement outside of Congress, certainly among businesspeople.

CURWOOD: Now this movement started, really, very quickly with a call for a moratorium on all new Federal regulations. The House passed that, but the Senate has passed a version that's much more moderate.

NOAH: As expected, there wasn't really a lot of strong support in the Senate for this idea. And so Senator Don Nickles substituted a measure, and under that measure whenever a Federal agency issued a regulation, Congress would be given 45 days to legislate that the regulation not take effect.

CURWOOD: That sounds more like a legislative veto rather than a ban, really, on regulations.

NOAH: It's like a 2-house legislative veto, and you could argue that except for a couple of mechanisms that have been added it is essentially what Congress is free to do right now.

CURWOOD: So, which outcome do you think is likely? The house version or this more moderate Senate view?

NOAH: If I were a betting man I would say that the Senate version is likely to prevail.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about the Clean Water Act. This is something that the House really would like to have a lot of changes in, especially the part that deals with wetlands reform. Now, going back into the Bush Administration, there was an effort to change the definition of wetlands, and the call then was for sound science about what a wetland should or shouldn't be. And I understand a report on that from the National Academy of Sciences is due out fairly soon. Yet the House seems to want to get the legislation through before the report comes out.

NOAH: Well, they not only want to but did get the bill out of committee before the report was available. In general, this has been a simmering dispute for many years; there are a number of people who feel that wetlands regulation is far too strict. That there are a number of things that ordinarily would not be considered wetlands that get characterized as wetlands in Federal regulation. And the election in November provided an opportunity for the opponents of wetlands regulation to get in some very strong language rolling back wetlands regulation in the Clean Water Act. Although I should add that about half the Democrats on the House Transportation Committee voted for this, this very strong bill.

CURWOOD: Is the Senate likely to go along with this fast track in advance of the scientific report?

NOAH: No, and that may be why you saw so much support in the House committee. It's a free vote. Because when this bill lands in the Senate Environment Committee, I think you'll find that Senator John Chaffee, the Chairman of that committee, who's a staunch environmentalist, is going to want to substantially modify the language in the bill.

CURWOOD: Now, let's talk about how these bills are being drafted. Some of the environmental activists are complaining that industry and the private property interests are helping to draft this legislation. Is that true, and is that inappropriate?

NOAH: Certain, it is true that on this bill as well as a number of bills, you're seeing a very strong input by business groups, much stronger than you saw before. And I think it's also true that you've seen special interest groups, liberal special interest groups show strong influence in previous times. Clearly, the fact that the Congress is now Republican means that those oppose environmental regulation are going to have a lot more clout than environmental groups are. Environmental groups did not have a terrific amount of clout even before the election. Now, is that unfair? I think the real question is, is the bill good legislation or is it bad legislation? And you are coincidentally hearing a lot of Democrats in the Clinton Administration assert that quite a lot of what's rocketing through Congress these days is bad legislation.

CURWOOD: The Clinton Administration is really just beginning to hit back on some of these environmental issues. Do you think they waited too long?

NOAH: They certainly waited a long time to push environmental issues in general, and I - I think that has to do with the fact that I don't believe that the President has much of a commitment to these issues. I don't think he has any terrific opposition to environmental issues, but I don't think he's really engaged by environmental issues.

CURWOOD: So what you're saying is that President Clinton isn't likely to stand in the way of the Republican effort to deregulate much of the environmental laws, unless he sees a real political advantage. And I'm wondering if the Clean Water Act might offer that kind of political advantage the way that, say, the Republican efforts to revise the school lunch program has.

NOAH: Well it might. And I should add, I mean to be fair, the White House has gotten much more aggressive lately on these issues. But yes, you're right; I mean I think for the Clinton Administration to get aggressive on a number of these issues, they're going to have to determine that there is some political advantage to doing so.

CURWOOD: Tim Noah covers the environment for the Wall Street Journal in Washington.



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