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

The New Majority Rules: What's Ahead

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood interviews Dale Curtis, editor of the political news wire service Greenwire, and Dan Weiss of the Sierra Club on the recent election's Republican sweep and implications for the environmental movement. Curtis and Weiss discuss Superfund, the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and Farm bills, and touch on some anticipated general trends.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In early December, the triumphant Republicans are scheduled to select the new leaderships of the House of Representatives and Senate. The new majority itself as well as the personalities and priorities of its new leadership will of course have profound effects on environmental politics. And with us now to give us a preview of how things may change is Dale Curtis, publisher of the daily environmental briefing, Greenwire. He joins us from the studios of NPR in Washington. Dale, welcome to Living on Earth.

CURTIS: Pleasure to join you again, Steve.

CURWOOD: Two years ago the Democrats came into power and environmental groups expected a flood of legislation, but received barely a trickle. With Republicans now in control of both houses in this next term, can we expect that faucet to be completely shut off?

CURTIS: Well, no, not completely shut off. But any efforts to significantly strengthen or expand the scope of environmental laws is unlikely to fly, unless it's inexpensive and non-bureaucratic and overwhelmingly popular to boot.

CURWOOD: What sort of thing might fall under that criteria?

CURTIS: Well, from time to time in Congress we see something that I call the enviro-cheapo coalition, which pulls together enough of the pro-environment Democrats with the fiscally-conservative Republicans to attack things like timber subsidies or pork barrel water projects that damage the environment.

CURWOOD: Now, there's a lot of legislation left over from the last Congress. Indeed, some environmental activists that thought well, gee, maybe a little bit later things like Superfund, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species, could be pushed. Now, do you think we'll see any movement on that, and what's the outlook?

CURTIS: I think on Superfund there is still a good chance that it could go through and both sides, business and environmentalists, support changes that would make it less costly and more efficient. The Clean Water Act, Mr. Schuster, the Republican from Pennsylvania, who will take over the Public Works Committee, had a bill in the last Congress which did not get considered due to efforts by the Democratic chairman. But now if Mr. Schuster's the chairman, you can be sure he'll be pushing that bill. And I think the Endangered Species Act, there may be a concerted effort by those Western conservatives to try to weaken that. For example, by adding a provision that when a species is being listed as endangered, that the economic impacts of that decision would have to be taken into effect. Right now the decision is made purely on science.

CURWOOD: Now, with the change in the majorities in both houses, the committee chairs are changing. From what we know now, Dale, who do you think will be the major players here?

CURTIS: Well I'm watching particularly 2 committees. On the Senate side, the Environment Committee, Senator John Chafee from Rhode Island is in line to become the chair. However, he worked fairly closely with the Clinton Administration on the crime bill and on the health care bill in the last session, and there's rumor that some Conservatives might want to punish him for that and deny him the chairmanship of the Environment Committee. Now, Chafee is a favorite of the enviros, works together with them quite effectively. So that would be significant. If Chafee doesn't get it, the next guy in line is Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and further down the list others who are equally conservative. So that's one to watch. The other key one to watch on the House side, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the gentleman who's in line to become chairman is Carlos Moorhead of California. However, he might go for the Judiciary Committee, which would leave it open for Tom Bliley of Virginia. Both of them less sympathetic even than the current chairman, John Dingell of Michigan, who's well known as an advocate of the automobile industry. And I might also add the House Public Works Committee, which has some jurisdiction over Superfund and jurisdiction over Clean Water. The guy who's in line to become the chairman there is Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania and he got a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

CURWOOD: The Farm Bill is up for consideration by the next Congress. There has been some talk of using it to enact some conservation reforms. What do you think of the prospects for that now?

CURTIS: Well you're almost certain to see a farm bill pass in the 104th Congress, and the environmental community have been talking over the last several months about focusing a lot of their efforts on that bill, because it's a way to address water pollution, pesticide regulations, and wetlands conservation in agricultural areas. There's a long tradition of bipartisanship on the Farm Bill, and an orientation towards the agriculture industry, and I think that will continue to be the case and it'll be even tougher for the environmental community to use that as a vehicle to push their agenda.

CURWOOD: Anything in general you see coming now with this new alignment of Congress that will be of special concern?

CURTIS: Well I think an issue that is not typically thought of as an environmental issue, but which would have significant implications, is the Balanced Budget Amendment. I think that's something that the Republican leadership will bring up very early on. I think it's likely to pass. I think there's a better than even odds that it will pass the requisite number of states to become a part of the Constitution. And if that does occur, there's only a couple of ways to balance the budget. One is to raise taxes and we know how popular that is. Another is to cut Social Security and the big expensive entitlement programs, and that's equally difficult politically. And the remaining option is to cut discretionary spending, things like environmental programs. So that's something that I think is worth keeping an eye on.

CURWOOD: Why do you think that would energize the environmental community?

CURTIS: Well, it's been a while since the environmental community had an enemy to run against. Reagan and Bush Administrations served that purpose. When the Clinton Administration came in, there was kind of a drop-off in terms of the membership of some of the groups, and one of the possible explanations is that the people didn't feel as threatened. And now, with a Republican Congress, I think the environmental community can use that to energize their base, use it in fundraising appeals and so forth.

CURWOOD: Let me check that now with a gentleman who's joined you there in the studios at NPR, Dan Weiss. He's political director of the Sierra Club. Hello, Dan.

WEISS: How are you?

CURWOOD: Now Dan, 2 years ago, you and other environmental activists had pretty high hopes with Clinton in the White House and a Democratic Congress. But there's not been a whole lot that's happened in terms of environmental legislation. So tell me, with the President alone, do you feel that things have gone from bad to worse?

WEISS: Well first of all, it's important to note that environmental protection traditionally has not been a partisan issue but an American issue. The Clean Air Act of 1990, for example, one of the strongest environmental laws we have, had significant contributions from people like Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island, Congressman Sherry Bolard of New York. We hope that that bipartisan spirit will continue when it comes to environmental protection. That being said, we are concerned that the expected chairmen of the environmental committees all have terrible environmental voting records. All of them on the House side have voted against the environment 90 to 100% of the time. The only exception to that is John Chafee on the Senate side, who is one of the true leaders of the environment in Congress.

CURWOOD: So, what are you going to do in this particular climate? Do you have some priorities?

WEISS: Well first, there are some areas where we've got a high degree of consensus between industry and environment and between folks of both parties, like on reforming the Superfund Toxic Waste Program. Hopefully, those consensus will move forward and that we'll be able to actually enact that into law. On the other hand, if Senator Dole and Representative Gingrich take the voting results as a green light to move backwards by undoing existing public health and environmental protections, then we plan on fighting them tooth and nail.

CURWOOD: Dale, you worked on environmental policy in the Bush White House, and at that time you had the same situation that the Clinton Administration has. The White House in one party, both Houses in the other. From your experience back then, is there anything that you would suggest as lessons to the Clinton White House?

CURTIS: Well, I'm sad to say it, but I'm afraid that anyone in the Clinton Administration who wants to push through some sort of constructive change is going to get very frustrated. I'm afraid there is going to be continuing gridlock in the political process. It's a lot easier to stop things than it is to push things through. And it's almost as though the whole game is rigged against the President; whether he's Clinton or Bush, he'll get attacked whether he moves to the left or to the right. Now, where I think President Clinton can avoid the mistakes of the Bush Administration is by being persistent on that agenda. I think too often, during the latter part of the Bush Administration, we ran away from environmental issues because some people felt they had nothing to gain politically from pushing an environmental agenda, and I think that contributed to President Bush's defeat in 1992.

CURWOOD: So you're saying over the long run, that Clinton should take the risk to support environmental issues because you think it would help his re-election bid.

CURTIS: I do, and I've got to say I think there's more continuity than discontinuity between President Bush and President Clinton on environmental policy. Clearly, with Clinton, any environmental program has to pass the test that it's going to create jobs, going to help the economy. So there ought to be a way to package his environmental agenda with that in mind, and gain some bipartisan support.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for joining us. Dale Curtis, publisher of Greenwire, and Dan Weiss, political director for the Sierra Club. Thank you.




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