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

1996 Presidential Candidates Profile Series: Phil Gramm

Air Date: Week of

Phil Gramm's hands-off approach to environmental regulation is reflected in his well established voting record. Gramm has been a stalwart advocate for individual property rights for more than twenty years. Eric Westervelt of New Hampshire Public Radio reports on the former Democrat and Presidential hopeful.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If there's one candidate for the Republican nomination for President that environmental activists love to hate, it's the folksy yet scrappy Texas Senator, Phil Gramm. The son of an Army sergeant, Senator Gramm is a strong advocate for property rights. And he's voted against the Clean Water Act and tougher pesticide regulations and called for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But if he infuriates those who would like to see tighter environmental controls, he's the darling of many who say government regulations have gone too far. A former economics professor at Texas A&M, Mr. Gramm was elected to Congress in 1978 as a Democrat. Many say he was more sympathetic to the Republican party from the outset, and he later switched to the Republican side and won a Senate seat in 1984. As part of Living on Earth's series on the Presidential candidates, New Hampshire Public Radio's Eric Westervelt takes a look at Phil Gramm's record.

(People gathered, ambient conversation)

WESTERVELT: On the campaign trail, Senator Phil Gramm tells voters that if elected President, he'd be the first dedicated hunter in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt. But Senator Gramm's long voting record might not please the father of Republican environmentalism, the man who founded America's national parks. Senator Gramm wants to sell off some Federal lands. He wants to increase logging in national forests and to open up coastal California, Florida, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The Federal Government, Gramm says, has locked up too much land, and is treading on the rights of private citizens to use their own land as well.

GRAMM: When I become President, when my hand comes off the Bible, we're going to stop taking private land for public purpose without paying people for it, because it violates the fundamental law of the land, the Constitution.

WESTERVELT: Senator Gramm's no newcomer to property rights. He's been pressing the idea for more than 20 years. The Senator recently introduced a Private Property Compensation Bill. It says if environmental or other regulations reduce the value of your property by at least 20%, Uncle Sam has to pay you for the loss, and pay your court costs. Senator Gramm proudly calls private property the original conservation movement.

GRAMM: People protect property that belongs to them, because it's theirs. They have every incentive to be judicious in using it, because it is theirs. And they pay for it if they don't.

WESTERVELT: Senator Gramm's hands-off approach to environmental regulation has informed his long voting record on the issue. He opposed reauthorization of the 1987 Clean Water Act. He opposed creation of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. And he opposed pesticide regulations in the 1990 Farm Bill. He voted for the 1990 Clean Air Act, but fiercely fought an amendment to strengthen curbs on ozone depleting chemicals. It's a record many conservatives praise, yet makes conservationists cringe.

LOYLES: Phil Gramm's voting record in the House and the United States Senate has been abysmal.

WESTERVELT: Betsy Loyles, political director for the League of Conservation Voters, says Senator Gramm's lifetime voting score with the League is 8 out of 100, one of the lowest scores in the US Senate.

LOYLES: That's the bottom of the barrel. You can't get much more bottom of the barrel. Every chance that he could get, he has voted against the environment. He has voted against health and safety protections. He has voted against the taxpayer and for the quote so-called phony property rights movement.

WESTERVELT: It's not just Washington environmental groups that assail Senator Gramm's record. For instance, while he has vowed as president to, quote, "make agriculture the flagship of America's trade policy," critics in Texas say the Senator has never been a friend of family farmers.

HIGHTOWER: Phil Gramm's idea of a good farm program is Hee Haw.

WESTERVELT: Texas Democrat Jim Hightower is the state's former agriculture commissioner.

HIGHTOWER: This guy has never supported any agricultural proposal that would actually allow family farmers in the country to have a chance of even making a living, much less prospering. He has pursued a cheap commodity policy for farmers, holding down the price of their corn and their cotton and their soybeans and et cetera, in order for the profiteers, the middle men, to be able to squeeze the farmer on the one hand and then turn and squeeze the consumer on the other hand, making a bunch of money in the middle.

WESTERVELT: Hightower says Senator Gramm pushed to locate a nuclear waste dump in a poor, largely Mexican American section of West Texas, an action he says epitomizes Gramm's pro-business, anti-environmental record. He and other conservationists charge that when it comes to the environment, Senator Gramm does the bidding of big oil, timber, petrochemical, pesticide, and other companies. The Senator has gotten plenty of money from powerful contributors. After the gun lobby, the oil industry is his second highest career campaign contributor. That's according to Federal Election Commission reports analyzed by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity. Chuck Lewis is the Center's director and author of the new book, The Buying of the President. Mr. Lewis says he has no direct evidence that Senator Gramm's corporate contributors shaped his voting record on the environment.

LEWIS: We're saying these folks are very close to each other, and both of them seem to have gotten something out of the relationship. And voters should know this and be educated about it and be aware of it and be ready for it, and in fact I think they should ask questions about it. They can all explain their relationships any way they want. I don't much care what they say. I think the public should know that they are tight.

WESTERVELT: The charge that Senator Gramm may put business interests ahead of the public good makes his supporters bristle, including New Hampshire's senior US Senator Robert Smith. The only member of New Hampshire's congressional delegation to back Senator Gramm -- the rest are behind Senator Bob Dole -- Smith says Senator Gramm has always fought for the taxpayer over special interests.

SMITH: Senator Gramm thinks as I do that raising taxes on communities involuntarily, forcing mandates on communities, is wrong. Senator Gramm breathes the same air that they do, he drinks the same water they do, he looks at the same mountains and lakes and streams and fishes. He's a fisherman and a hunter. He's an outdoorsman. I certainly would think it would be absolutely ludicrous to think that Phil Gramm would want to destroy the environment. I think it's just a cheap shot that's not accurate.

(A rally. A man shouts, "Gramm '96! Gramm '96!")

WESTERVELT: On the trail, Senator Gramm says one example of his pro-taxpayer approach to the environment is his newfound support for raising the small fee corporations and ranchers now pay to mine and graze on Federal lands.

GRAMM: We need to be good stewards of the taxpayers' resources, and if we're going to mine gold or uranium or silver or oil or whatever we're mining, that we want to do it in an environmentally safe way. And we want to have competition for the availability to do it, so that the taxpayer gets a fair rate of return on the asset.

WESTERVELT: Yet besides that example, the Senator is vague on just what a Gramm Administration would do to help protect America's environment. Gramm is proudly pro-development, and says he's not willing to jeopardize jobs in Texas or anywhere else. A balance, he believes, can be found. As Senator Gramm continues his aggressive quest for the presidency, some analysts believe it could test how far the party of Roosevelt is willing to go. How much environmental deregulation Republicans are willing to embrace, when it comes to picking their presidential nominee. For Living on Earth, this is Eric Westervelt reporting.



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