Life on the Hill
Air Date: Week of May 30, 2003
Living on Earth’s Washington D.C. correspondent Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is leaving her post on Capitol Hill for the fields of Iowa and a writers’ school there. Host Steve Curwood asks Anna some final questions about environmental politics in Washington, D.C.
CURWOOD: For the past couple of years, you’ve been getting the scoop on Washington from our correspondent there, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. Anna is leaving her post in the Capitol and joins me now to answer a few final questions.
Anna, you got there just about this time of year, two years ago. I’m wondering if it feels like it’s been that long?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, it’s strange. In some ways, it feels like a lot of time has passed. You know, a lot of policies have definitely changed. But in other ways, especially in Congress, it sort of feels like a version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” only in years. And that’s because the schedule here, you know, it’s always basically the same. The same issues come up each session.
But it’s also because it’s rare that there is a real change here, that a major piece of legislation does get passed. One bill that did get passed really early on when I was here was the Farm Bill. You might remember, the very first piece I filed from here was on it. And it was a bill that had an unprecedented amount of money for conservation programs in it.
But now, just two years later, or less than two years later, there are hearings going on already about how that bill is actually being implemented. And critics are saying that the money and resources from the USDA aren’t actually meeting the promises of that bill, particularly when it comes to conservation programs.
So, that’s an example of a bill, you know, it did get passed but it’s already sort of being picked apart.
CURWOOD: Now, when you first came to Washington, the Democrats controlled the Senate. Razor-thin majority, because Jim Jeffords had left the Republican party to caucus with the Dems as an Independent. And then, with the election last November, the Senate switched back to being Republican. What kind of impact has that had on the environmental agenda?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, I think it’s been significant for some issues. The recent Bush tax cut, for instance, which many environmentalists opposed, passed only when Vice President Cheney stepped in to cast the tie-breaking vote.
And we’ve also seen quite a few issues fallen off the agenda that were being pushed by the more green-leaning members of Congress. I’m thinking about climate change, chemical security, reinstating the Superfund tax on polluters.
But the environment-- it isn’t a strictly partisan issue here. Especially in the Senate, we’ve seen an increasingly strong group of moderate Republicans who have been going against their party leaders. There is also a pretty consistent group of Democrats who often vote with the Republican leaders.
So, it will be interesting to see what happens with some of the president’s policies right now. There is the Clear Skies legislation, also Healthy Forests legislation that would deal with wildfires that are going on. There is a lot of pressure from the White House to support those bills. But it’s not quite what it was during the war in Iraq or even after September 11th.
CURWOOD: Yes, what about September 11th, Anna? There was all kinds of speculation then that this was really going to change the environmental agenda. Did that happen?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You know, I don’t think it did as much as people thought it would. It did--in terms of the rhetoric, yes. Environmental groups, they laid low for a few months. Everyone was very wary of criticizing the president, criticizing government at all.
And there were a few things that happened during that time that I think might have gotten more attention if they had happened under more normal circumstances. And there were some things that got forgotten, too, like the investigation into Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force. That sort of just slipped off the radar.
And some things have been easier to push through because of the 11th, like the Pentagon asking for environmental exemptions for the military. And also a move to restrict public use of the Freedom of Information Act. But I think maybe the biggest effect of September 11th has simply been the slashing of budgets that we have seen for all sorts of things. And that includes environmental programs they have had to scale back because of the resources that have gone into security. But I think in general the initial sense of urgency has faded somewhat, and a lot of things have gone back to business as usual.
CURWOOD: Christie Todd Whitman, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has just given her notice of resignation. It’s not clear, I guess, who is going to take her spot, but what kind of impact do you think the new administrator would have?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I doubt very much impact. You know, I think it’s pretty clear to most people who have been watching this that most of what’s come out of the EPA in these past couple years has had a lot more to do with President Bush than it does with Christie Whitman.
She has been in direct conflict at times with the White House. And she herself acknowledged that Colin Powell at one point called her a “wind dummy” for having to be the messenger on some of the more controversial announcements she had to make.
You remember the administration’s decision not to support the Kyoto climate change treaty. Its weakening of some Clean Air Act provisions. So I’m guessing that the White House is probably going to continue to do what it has been doing, no matter who is heading the EPA.
Where the impact might be felt would be more in next year’s elections, I think, Steve. Everybody is going to be looking at this choice of EPA Administrator in terms of how it affects the administration’s environmental image.
CURWOOD: What about those elections? How will the environmental agenda play there?
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Conventional wisdom around here is that not much gets done in an election year. It’s a time when people like to have their battles neatly wrapped up. They don’t want to be seen as vulnerable. I think both for the administration and within Congress, it’s likely that whatever is going to happen, it will have to be relatively soon.
So, we are probably going to see them re-authorizing a transportation bill. Maybe finishing up an energy bill, finally. We might see some of this other legislation that the administration is pushing so they can count it as victories next year. And I think, also, one thing that we are probably going to see, I bet, in the run up to the elections, is at least one piece of environmental policy coming out of the administration that is relatively benign, non-controversial, maybe something akin to the hydrogen car initiative they announced last year. But something that will draw some positive press and basically stump environmentalists, who are themselves going to be trying to make the public remember a lot of the rollbacks that have been going on since January 2001.
CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent, wrapping up two years there. Thanks so much, Anna, for your service and your reporting.
SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You’re welcome, Steve.
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