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

Congress Hedges it's Bets

Air Date: Week of

When the 105th Congress returns to work for its 1998 session, it will face plenty of choices about the environment. During this year's session lawmakers continued to ignore Superfund, the toxic waste clean-up law, and the Endangered Species Act. Both are long past due for rewrites. The reason, says Congressional Quarterly's Allan Freedman, is that Republican leaders are still smarting from the electoral beating they took on the environment in '96. Steve Curwood spoke with Mr. Freedman.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
When the 105th Congress returns to work for its 1998 session, it'll face plenty of choices about the environment. During this year's session, lawmakers continued to ignore Superfund, the toxic waste cleanup law. And the Endangered Species Act. Both are long past due for rewrites. The reason for the malaise, says Congressional Quarterly's Allan Freedman, is that Republican leaders are still smarting form the electoral beating they took on the environment in '96.

FREEDMAN: What the Republicans have basically done is they've been trying to sort of seek out the middle ground, you know, find the areas where people want to make changes. And they've really had a hard time sort of finding that middle ground, because that middle ground right now in Washington on environmental issues is very volatile, and nobody quite knows where it is.

CURWOOD: Conservatives have a reputation of being fairly meticulous and organized. Are there any sorts of quiet, almost stealth initiatives that those who feel there's too much environmental regulation have been able to inject into the process?

FREEDMAN: Well, there are 2 things about that. First of all, the conservatives have not been quiet and organized in the past. In fact, they've been somewhat bone-headed about the way they've gone about the politics of the environment, and they've admitted as such. This year, however, they seem to have gotten their act together a little bit. There have been 4 bills that have passed the House but not the Senate, and may not go anywhere, but nonetheless there are bills that have passed the House on grazing legislation, limiting the President's authority to set aside environmentally sensitive lands under the 1906 Antiquities Act, and a few other bills they've been able to get through. Mainly by crafting narrow pieces of legislation, packaging them as somewhat innocuous, in other words, incremental change. Building coalitions with their eastern Republicans, who have traditionally been their foes. And essentially sort of moving things through a little bit below the radar screen.

CURWOOD: Now, the Congress did try to deal with a major highway funding bill. That's the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or ISTEA. But they ended up putting it on hold until March. It seemed to be just loaded with construction job goodies. Why didn't they go for it?

FREEDMAN: Believe it or not, there's not enough money to go around. Here's the problem. In 1991, the power in Washington was in northeastern states, and that bill, the law, was written to benefit northeastern lawmakers. Since then we've had a revolution in politics in Washington, and power is now controlled by southern states like Trent Lott, the majority leader of the US Senate, is from Mississippi. The entire Republican leadership in the House is from the South, or from Texas. And basically, there is a fight over redistributing that money.

CURWOOD: Allan, the Transportation Bill has a lot of environmental provisions in it that were used to fund things like mass transit and bike paths. Was there a fight over that aspect?

FREEDMAN: Not really. I think the smart money basically says that that stuff stays, mainly because in the time that they've been in the law they've actually built up a very solid constituency among members, like mayors, for example, people who count. The White House is very much in favor of it, as are the environmentalists. And most of all, it's not a lot of money.

CURWOOD: What's on the docket in terms of environmental legislation we should be watching out for in this next year?

FREEDMAN: Probably the most important thing to watch is the Endangered Species Act. This fall, Dirk Kempthorne was able to, a Senator from Idaho, was able to put a bill together that would reform the Endangered Species Act. This was an incredible political task. The importance of this bill is that it has the many Democrats and Republicans. The bill is opposed strongly by many environmental groups. But the bill was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this fall, and it is considered to be sort of a prime candidate for consideration on the Senate floor in the spring. Now, the odds are still against it because it's an extremely difficult issue to get agreement on.

CURWOOD: One thing that is likely to be before Congress in the next year is the climate change treaty. Now, we don't know what sort of treaty will come out of the negotiations in Kyoto, or if the Administration will choose to bring that treaty to Capitol Hill right away. But if it does, some proposals on the table include binding limits on emissions, perhaps tradeable emissions credits. What would be politically salable on Capitol Hill to fight the threat of global warming?

FREEDMAN: Almost nothing. The President is likely to do some proposed R&D spending next year, maybe some tax incentives all in his budget. Some of the R&D spending may get through, but I think you'll just see drips here and a drip there and that's about it.

CURWOOD: Now, the Presidential commission that looked at climate change recommended changing the fuel economy standards, the so-called CAFE Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And there's a study by the Environmental Working Group and the Surface Transportation Policy Project and others saying that bumping the car standard to 45 miles a gallon and trucks to 34 could reduce greenhouse gas emissions half the way back to 1990 levels. And 1990 is the current target level that's being talked about for the Kyoto treaty. Any chance the Administration's going to do this?

FREEDMAN: They might. But it's important to note that Congress in the last 2 Congresses has opposed CAFE standards, and in fact has affirmatively put language in appropriation bills telling the Administration not to increase CAFE standards. The Administratoin can increase CAFE on its own, but then Congress would be free to block it through passing legislation, which it will do. So here's the question: is the Administration willing to court a confrontation with Congress over this issue?

CURWOOD: And the answer?

FREEDMAN: The answer is maybe. The question is: how willing is Bill Clinton and Al Gore, how willing are they to take on key factions within the Democratic party? The people opposed to this are also the people who the Democrats have to rely on for their money in a reelection effort, both the Presidential election in 2000 and also the midterm elections next year. So, they would have to take on both big labor and also take on business. And they would be doing something the environmentalists would like, and that's an important part of the Democratic party, but they would also be playing some very difficult politics within the Democratic party itself.

CURWOOD: Always a pleasure to talk with you, Allan. Thanks for joining us.

FREEDMAN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Allan Freedman is an environmental staff reporter for Congressional Quarterly.



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