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

Back Door Enviro Policy

Air Date: Week of

Since President Clinton has taken office, many important environmental protection bills such as the Endangered Species Act, Superfund and the Clean Water Act are up for renewal. But only one major environmental law has made it through Congress and been signed. The slow down in enviro legislation hasn't stopped some lawmakers from trying to ease environmental protection. Steve Curwood speaks with NPR reporter Philip Davis about how the Republican majority is trying to push through sweeping policy changes using . . . the budget process.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Since President Clinton took office nearly 3 years ago, only 1 major environmental law has reached his desk: the California Desert Protection Act. In the meantime, several major measures have gone nowhere. The Endangered Species Act, the Superfund, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act. These are all overdue for renewal, but they have become stalled in Capitol Hill debate, along with a number of other bills designed to enhance environmental protection. But the Congress is moving ahead with budget measures that would have a major impact on how the government handles the environment. Joining us now is NPR Washington correspondent Philip Davis. Hi there.

DAVIS: Hello, Steve; how are you?

CURWOOD: Good. Philip, first, can you list for us the major environmental items that have been written into the budget measures?

DAVIS: Well, it's interesting that you mention the California Desert Protection Act in your introduction there, because that was the one major piece of environmental legislation that was signed into law last year, and this year, the Congress and some of its budgetary bills is providing no money at all for the management of this new park. There are a lot of other budgetary shenanigans, shall we say, going on, including cutting the EPA budget by about 35% and zeroing out the National Biological Service, which Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had put together to inventory the nation's flora and fauna. But beyond that, in the budget bills that Congress is now considering, there are lots of policy provisions, policy pronouncements, that are sort of tucked away in there that don't have really have any monetary value but could possibly lead to big changes in environmental policy in this country. They would restrict the EPA, for example, from enforcing rules covering wetlands and stop the EPA from putting into place its new program for centralized auto emissions and inspection stations across the country, and from enforcing new rules for arsenic and other chemicals in drinking water. There's also going to be a 90-day moratorium on all new listings of endangered species. So there's a lot going on.

CURWOOD: And this list goes on and on. Am I correct?

DAVIS: Yeah. Well, not only that; there's " in the big Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Bill, there is a provision there that would open up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. There's also provisions in there that would possibly lead to more timber harvesting, in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, and there would be changes in grazing and mining policy and even a provision to set up a commission to look at closing down some of our national parks.

CURWOOD: So what's the common theme here?

DAVIS: Well, the common theme is that Republicans who have been out of power for quite some time have built up quite a store of hostility to environmental regulations which they feel have unduly hampered businesses, developers, miners, and ranchers. And what they are trying to do now is tip the balance away from environmental protections and toward development and business concerns.

CURWOOD: Now, why are they doing it this way? I mean, why put all this policy in the budgetary process instead of straight-up legislation?

DAVIS: You're right; this is sort of a back door policy. Democratic critics and even some moderate Republicans are saying that these amount to an admission by the Republicans that they can't get these sort of environmental policy changes through actual changes in the law. That if they did this in that sort of up-front fashion, that these bills would never pass Congress. It's much more difficult, say, to change the Clean Water Act or to change national park law than it is to slip in riders in a budgetary bill that are supposedly dealing with nothing but dollars and cents.

CURWOOD: Now, there's plenty of historical precedent for using the budget process to get through policy. Democrats have done this in the past. What's different about what's going on right now?

DAVIS: That's true. I mean, some of what the Democrats are saying about "this is horrible," that we're putting policy in appropriations bills " well, the Democrats have done it before. For example, there's now a moratorium on offshore oil drilling. That is something that has never been passed as a straight up and up law, but it has been part of appropriations bills since the Bush Administration. But the scale of this is so much different this time around. I mean, in the EPA budget bill, for example, there are 13 separate riders telling them to do all kinds of different things, and you just haven't seen the kind of, that kind of scale in the past.

CURWOOD: Do you think it's likely to succeed?

DAVIS: Well, at this point in time, I think that the number of changes to the nation's environmental policy won't be quite as great as is being feared right now. There's actually a growing coalition in Congress right now of a combination of moderate Republicans who still feel that environmental protection is a key national priority, and with conservative deficit hawks who think that some of these bills actually not only are bad for the environment, but are bad for the budget as well. Along with that, you have the prospect of Presidential opposition to these budgetary policy pronouncements. President Clinton has threatened to veto a number of these bills and he very well may. He is also making environmental issues part of his preliminary presidential re-election campaign. He thinks that " and the polls support him in this " show that a lot of people in the country are starting to get worried about what they see as a Republican attack on natural resource and environmental policy. And so, this is a battle that both sides think they might be able to win.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much. We'll be watching very closely. Philip Davis of NPR's Washington Bureau. Thanks for joining us.

DAVIS: Thanks, Steve. It was a pleasure talking to you.



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