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

Congressional Crystal Ball

Air Date: Week of

Will the Hundred and Fifth turn over a new leaf on the environment, or kick up more dust? Which earth items are likely to move forward, and which will remain stuck in partisan mud? Allan Freeman of the Congressional Quarterly shares some projections with Steve on the session ahead.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The 105th Congress is about to get down to work after a swearing in ceremony on January 7th. The GOP is still in control of the House and Senate but a little swagger seems to have gone out of its step. It was just 2 years ago that the first Republican-controlled Congress in a generation charged into Washington demanding an overhaul of government according to their Contract With America. Some of the proposed measures would have gutted a number of environmental protections. When the Clinton Administration refused to capitulate, the Congressional Republicans cut off funding and shut down the government. In the end, compromise rather than confrontation moved most legislation through, and this time around, with the Republican majority trimmed at the ballot box, the rhetoric is echoing consensus and moderation. But there are still deep divisions between the parties, and we asked Congressional Quarterly's Allan Freeman to predict how Washington will handle the environment now.

FREEMAN: There are a number of issues that are coming up in the next Congress which will test those divisions. For example, the Clinton Administration has come out in the last month with new clean air rules, and how these issues play out in Congress will be a major test of that.

CURWOOD: Let's talk a little bit more about the air pollution question. The EPA has proposed new tougher rules on particulates and the ozone. Particulates are implicated in some 60,000 excess deaths a year. This is a big health issue. So how is the GOP, that would like to see less regulations, going to handle a -- you know, what looks like a pretty hot button health issue?

FREEMAN: The Republicans are going to have to be extremely careful in terms of getting into this debate, because there are big risks in terms of engaging the administration and clean air. First, the administration is pushing this as a cost versus health debate. They are pushing these regulations as improving public health for children, for asthmatic, for vulnerable populations, that has tended to be a winning message for the Administration. Industry, who does not want to deal with these regulations, is pushing the cost argument that these regulations are unnecessary and will cost too much. What's interesting is that if the debate is framed on those terms, public health versus cost, we've seen on past debates the Administration will probably have an advantage in the political arena. You add the fact that these regulations that will not probably bite consumers until well into the next, early part of the next century, that means that this will be kind of an abstract debate for many consumers. And given the choice between protecting public health and sort of accepting these kind of abstract costs, we've seen that voters will tend to embrace public health issues.

CURWOOD: Now, there's an issue that's not particularly health-related, and this involves wetlands. The Clinton Administration has also announced that people who want to develop small areas of wetlands are now going to have to go through a more extensive review process. The older standards were implemented during the Reagan Administration to allow fast track reviews of wetlands permits, and they've been long attacked as a green light to developers to fill and drain wetlands with little or no review. Now, how will Congress respond to this?

FREEMAN: This is a fascinating issue because when you talk to members about environmental issues, one of the issues that always comes up is the issue of wetlands. And it comes up in the context of Federal regulators being, sort of interpreting environmental laws in a kind of absurd way. You hear about puddles that people call wetlands. There is a real division within Congress about this issue. The Republicans are looking for flexibility in regulations. They're not looking for stringent regulations. They want to build as much flexibility into these regulations while also protecting the environment. So that tends to set up a natural philosophical clash with the Administration.

CLINTON: Is this wetlands decision in return for some support that enviro groups gave to President Clinton, the Democrats, during the past election?

FREEMAN: You know, I believe that it is. But I also believe that it's important to look at the overall arc of what the Clinton Administration has done over the last couple of months.

The Administration has taken a number of proactive environmental actions. They've really set up a conflict with Congress. Everything from the clean air rules to the wetlands rules to sort of shortening out the timber salvage provisions; in other words, ending that program really 15 days early, which angered timber lobbyists. To the Escalante Monument in Utah, which just absolutely outraged Utahns. In other words, you have a series of events that are very proactive and quite frankly in the sort of in your face actions in terms of the Republican Congress. Taken as a whole, these actions really point to a potential clash between Clinton and Congress. Or at the very least, they will test sort of where the center is in environmental policy.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks for taking this time with us. Alan Freeman is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly. He's talking to us on the line from Washington. Thanks, sir.

FREEMAN: Thank you.



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