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

Post-Election Roundtable

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with former Bush Administration Environmental Protection Agency head William Reilly, and current Sierra Club political director Dan Weiss on the outcome of the November 5th general election, and their views on changes to anticipate among congressional committees and national policy.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Nineteen ninety-six was supposed to be the year the environment emerged as a top election issue. Bill Clinton and Al Gore included the environment in their mantra of what would be cut as a result of Bob Dole's tax plan. And TV ads attacking candidates who voted against the Clean Water Act filled the airways. But how did the environment fare at the ballot box? Here to talk with us about what the election results will mean for environmental policy in the second Clinton Administration is William Reilly, former Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George Bush, and Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club. Welcome gentlemen.

WEISS: Thanks for having me.

REILLY: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Let's start with the Congressional races. Dan Weiss, let me ask you first. The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters singled out a number of freshmen Republicans and attacked them for voting against environmental bills such as drinking water protection and voting for cuts to the EPA. Do you think those attacks worked?

WEISS: We beat at least a dozen incumbents that had anti-environmental voting records. And we've done some polling to find out why. One of them, for example, Andrea Seastrand in California, we found out that the number one reason why people voted against her was because she voted to weaken clean air and clean water laws. And this was based on a poll that we did the night before the election.

CURWOOD: Bill Reilly, I'm wondering if you agree with Dan Weiss's analysis here. Do you think that their painting of candidates as anti-environmentalist was an effective campaign strategy?

REILLY: It was effective in a number of races, I think. The list of so-called "dirty dozen" that the League of Conservation Voters targeted, 6 of those incumbents went down. I think that the evidence is that where the environment featured, it featured positively. That is, people wanted to support the environment.

CURWOOD: Let's turn now to the state ballot initiatives. Dan Weiss, which referendum result did you think was the most significant?

WEISS: In Florida, on the Everglades referendum, although the sugar tax failed the voters did approve a change in the Florida constitution which now requires polluters to pay the cost of cleaning up environmental mess. And that is unprecedented.

CURWOOD: Bill Reilly, I'm wondering which of the initiatives you think will have the biggest impact now.

REILLY: I think it's very important to recognize that the 2 major bond issues in the country for the environment passed and passed by good margins. That in New York, for $1.75 billion for clean water and for some hazardous waste cleanup; and that in California, which is a little less than a billion for water cleanup of the Sacramento River and the Sanyocan Delta. Those are very big numbers in today's tax-conscious world. That's a significant victory, I think, for the environment. To the extent that you can read anything in some of the other referenda that went down, the proposals to control riparian grazing in Oregon or the pollution controls that were to be imposed on mining in Montana, it may be that the public is saying we want to support the environment but we're very wary of increasing the regulatory apparatus at this time.

CURWOOD: That's an interesting question. I mean, also you could include in that list the failure to get a clear-cut ban in Maine. Dan Weiss, what about you? Do you think that's why those ballot measures were pushed back? That people are skeptical of that tight kind of regulatory situation?

WEISS: Well, I have a very different take on it. I believe that if you spend enough money opposing something on television, that you can convince people that apple pie's bad for them. Montana now is going to put a restriction on how much you can spend on a referendum campaign, and if that restriction had been in place in 1996 we might have seen a very different outcome on the clean water initiative.

CURWOOD: Let's look ahead now to some future environmental policy and legislation. Bill Reilly, we have the same president. Republicans still control both houses. And things look pretty much the same. Does this mean that we should expect a repeat of the last 2 years of environmental legislation and policy?

REILLY: I would be very surprised if we see a repeat of the last 2 years of environmental legislation and politics. I think that the leadership of the House, and Mr. Gingrich in fact has been explicit about this, positioned themselves very badly on the environment, came to be seen as anti-environment, failed to make the distinction between protecting people from excessive regulation on the one hand but ensuring the protection of health and safety and the environment on the other. We have got to see some moving, I think, toward the center on these issues. The moderates in the House will have a very powerful swing balance this time. And I think that if any progress is to be made on the environment it will have to be the result of a consensus. And that means that the edges will not be sharp on either side.

CURWOOD: Dan Weiss, how do you see it?

WEISS: I can see it going one of two ways. On the one hand there is an opportunity to revive some consensus proposals that were killed in the waning days of the last Democratic Congress, and then Republicans tried to weaken laws in the 104th. I hope some of those consensus efforts are, like around Superfund toxic cleanup program, will be revived. On the other hand, Trent Lott said today he's going to revive the regulatory reform bill that would have devastated our environmental laws. Senator Bond of Missouri says he's going to go after the so-called takings legislation that would force taxpayers to pay polluters not to pollute. If in fact they pursue this agenda, they're going to find themselves caught again in another environmental firestorm.

CURWOOD: Dan Weiss, I'm wondering what you see from President Clinton during his second term.

WEISS: First of all, I think President Clinton is going to continue to vigorously oppose efforts to weaken environmental laws. And if Trent Lott follows through on his attempt to bring regulatory reform up, President Clinton will be right out there opposing it. Second, I think he's going to try and use his executive authority, as he's done earlier this year, to expand the community Right-to-Know program to improve environmental protection. Third, as he tried to do in the 103rd Congress, I believe that President Clinton is going to try and build consensus around environmental reform, like they did on Safe Drinking Water Act a few months ago.

CURWOOD: Bill Reilly, how about you? Do you expect President Clinton to emerge as an environmental leader, or will his attention be elsewhere?

REILLY: President Clinton played a largely defensive role in the last Congress. He managed to ward off some unfortunate, and I think very bad attacks on the environment. He did not in my view make the environment a priority, either in the first two years of his administration or even the last two. I would expect that he will continue to make good calls on the environment, but I don't really anticipate that he will give a very high priority to that issue. We do have an opportunity to pass a new Superfund law. It's possible the Clean Air Act would be reauthorized in this Congress. If I were at the White House and I saw any indication of receptivity on the part of the Republican leadership in the House and Senate on some of these measures, that would affect me and I would be inclined to give a higher priority to legislative reform on the environment.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about some of the personalities of the second Clinton Administration. And of course at the top of the list is the Vice President, Al Gore. Bill Reilly, you spent plenty of time around the White House and Al Gore is considered the most powerful vice president in recent history. And of course at the same time he's obviously thinking about the year 2000. Do you think Al Gore is going to push this administration on environmental issues in this second term?

REILLY: I have to say that Al Gore, despite his really impressive knowledge of the environment, did not in my opinion exercise that much influence to move the Administration on the environment in the first term. I think that Vice President Gore will continue to be involved in the environment, but he has been very involved and I think productively, in fact, on government reform efforts and on some foreign policy issues involving Russia and disarmament. I would suspect that he will continue to spend much if not most of his efforts in some of those other areas.

CURWOOD: Dan Weiss, do you agree?

WEISS: I would expect that Vice President Gore will continue to be very involved in environmental policy within the Administration. And I think a role that he's uniquely suited to play will be in addressing global environmental problems. As you know, back in July the Administration committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming by the year 2005, and now we've got some tougher negotiations with our allies ahead of us. I would expect Vice President Gore to play a very important role in those negotiations.

REILLY: The climate treaty negotiations will be fascinating to watch. The United States now is committed, as a result of a decision made last summer, to propose realistic and enforceable timetables for control of greenhouse gases for reducing the expected increase in their generation and presumably controlling them seriously. It's unclear how that will be done, but I would be surprised if energy taxes don't resurface as a major priority necessary to keep the US commitment on climate.

CURWOOD: And what are the chances of getting any kind of new taxes through the present arrangement on the hill?

REILLY: This is an issue, climate change, that's going to require a lot of education. Most polls indicate the country is not really that aware or informed about the climate problem, about global warming. To the extent that the President and Vice President make it an issue or want to see us move forward on it, they're going to have to educate the country and deal with the very substantial part of the economic sector that's very opposed to any new costs of energy, any taxes or any regulatory controls on generation of greenhouse gases.

CURWOOD: Hazel O'Leary is leaving the Energy Department. We'll see some new personalities on the environment in the Clinton Administration. Dan Weiss, any idea who we might see?

WEISS: There are a number of good people that could fill that slot. One of them includes Bill Richardson, Congressman from New Mexico, who served on both the Energy Committee and the Natural Resources Committee in the House and is well-versed in these issues. Another possibility would be former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth. I think one of the most important positions that we know is open that needs to be filled is chief of the Forest Service. Under the salvage rider that was signed last year by President Clinton, it's led to a lot of clear-cutting in our national forests, and we need to have a chief of the Forest Service that can get that agency to comply with both the letter and the spirit of environmental laws. So that's going to be a very important appointment that's not at the cabinet level but will have a lot to say over the state of the environment over the next 4 years.

CURWOOD: Dan Weiss is political director of the Sierra Club. William Reilly served as EPA Administrator during the Bush Administration. Thank you both for joining us.

REILLY: Thanks for having me.

WEISS: Thanks for having me.



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