Air Date: Week of December 8, 1995
Once again, President Clinton and Congress face a shutdown over Federal spending for the fiscal year that began in October, and increasingly, the environment is playing an important role in the budget battle. Steve Curwood interviews Gary Lee, environmental reporter for the Washington Post.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Once again, President Clinton and the Congress are facing a showdown over Federal spending for the fiscal year that began in October. And increasingly, as we've seen over the past few months, the environment is playing an important role in the budget battle. For a look at how these issues are being handled as negotiations go down to the wire, we turn now to Gary Lee, environmental reporter for the Washington Post.
LEE: The overall budget for enforcement of all the environmental laws, including those for clean-up of drinking water, reservoirs, and for lakes and rivers, threatens to be cut in that budget. So because the enforcement budget would be cut, you could say that the whole gamut of laws, anti-pollution laws, would be affected by these proposed cuts.
CURWOOD: Now, as the budget negotiations have continued, the White House has said it will veto any bill that proposes cuts in environmental laws and regulations. Now, is this for real, or is this a negotiating position, do you think?
LEE: I think at this particular point, we could regard it as a negotiating position. And in fact it's a negotiating position which has had some effect so far. The Republicans started out by proposing a much bigger cut than they've ended up with now. Originally, we had thought that there would be about a third cut in the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, including a half, 50% cut in the budget for enforcement. But that's now been whittled down in the negotiations.
CURWOOD: Now, a lot of the moderates in the Republican party up on Capitol Hill have been very much opposed to some of these cuts in the budget bill. How much influence have they had?
LEE: They have helped bring, in their own words, the pendulum back to the middle somewhere on where the GOP stands on the environment. For example, there were quite a number of more than a dozen riders that were originally attached to the Republican proposed EPA budget, and those riders would have prevented or mitigated the enforcement of significant parts of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and so on. And in large part due to the pressure of the Republican moderates, most of the riders will not appear in the final budget.
CURWOOD: I'm wondering about the efforts to reform the 1872 Mining Law, one that essentially has the Federal government give away billions of dollars in mineral rights for just about nothing. Now my understanding is that the House Republicans are quite militant about changing that law, but the Senate is dragging its feet. Is that accurate? And if so, how do you think this will play out?
LEE: That's right. The House does want to bring about changes so that there's not such a big give-away and the Senate is, as you put it, dragging its feet on that particular issue, I think that this is one of those examples in which the western senators have a great deal of clout and they're mobilizing in a conservative way around this issue. And I assume that at the end of the day, that the House will end up having strong sway over how the legislation is finally -- finally changed or enacted, or whether it is at all.
CURWOOD: It looks like President Clinton is going to make environmental protection one of the key issues of his re-election campaign. What kind of record do you think he has to stand on here?
LEE: Actually, Clinton himself does not have a strong record on the environment. It has seemed that in the last couple of months Clinton has been willing to take up more -- a higher profile supporting the environment and saying that he's not going to stand for the threats that the Republicans are posing to it. So one of the things that we in Washington will be looking to, to determine how strong Clinton's leg is in making the environment a campaign issue, is whether he makes good on some of the vetoes that he has threatened on some of the proposals that the Republicans have made on the environment.
CURWOOD: One of the big bills that just passed without getting very much attention was this measure that eliminates the Federal speed limits. This was very much an environmental cause in the 70s, given our concerns about foreign oil and conservation. But now, nothing. What happened here?
LEE: Well, a couple of things happened. One is that the environmentalists failed to make that a major issue. They have in the course of the last few months, when the environment has been under such heavy debate in Washington, they've kind of picked and chosen what issues they would try to lobby hard on, and they didn't lobby hard against this particular one. So it sneaked past and now it's law. I think it also, the fact that it passed in such a stealth way, also reflects the fact that Americans in general have become somewhat complacent about the use of gasoline and other fossil fuels. We're not nearly as concerned about the negative effect that burning more gasoline would have on the overall environment as we were when the speed limits were first imposed.
CURWOOD: Gary Lee is environmental reporter for the Washington Post. Thanks for joining us.
LEE: Thank you.
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