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

Republican Environmental Roundtable

Air Date: Week of

Republicans have a new Speaker and a slimmer majority in the House of this Congress. To discuss how these changes may affect the majority's agenda for the environment, host Steve Curwood is joined by Republican Representatives Wayne Gilchrest, of Maryland, and Jerry Weller, of Illinois.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We could be forgiven for not noticing, but the fate of President Clinton is not the only issue Washington lawmakers face these days. In fact, before impeachment took center stage, environmental concerns, including climate change and riders, had Republicans and Democrats yelling at each other across the aisle. Republicans have a new speaker and a slimmer majority in the house of the new Congress. To discuss how these changes may affect the majority's agenda for the environment, we brought together Republican representatives Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Jerry Weller of Illinois. Gentlemen, welcome and thanks for your time today.

GILCHREST: Thank you.

WELLER: Well, thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: All right, let me ask you both, And perhaps I'll start with you, Congressman Jerry Weller. What are the environmental priorities for Republicans this session?

WELLER: Well clearly, the top priority, I believe, going into this year is the reauthorization of Superfund. You know, unfortunately, over the 15 years of Superfund's existence, we've only seen about 20% of the sites out of -- there's 1,200 identified Superfund sites; only about 25% of them have been actually cleaned up. It takes about, on average, 12 years to complete the cleanup; on average about $25 million a particular site. The costs are way too high, And if you see the actual way the dollars have been spent, the dollars on Superfund, which is a program that has earned bipartisan support, is that the dollars, the majority of them, get spent on lawyers' fees. And I believe the taxpayers back home are anxious to see those dollars spent on actual cleanup. So, Superfund must be a priority.

CURWOOD: Yeah, everybody says that about it, that Superfund just wastes money on lawyers. But it seems like deal after deal has come to the brink, And then nothing has passed. Why do you suppose that happens?

WELLER: Well, it's my hope, And of course Sheri Boehlert and Mike Oxley both have done yeoman's work. They chair respective subcommittees with jurisdiction over Superfund. And they've tried, I think, worked well with a number of Democrats in the House and tried to reach out to the Administration to come up with a bipartisan way of reducing the money that goes to lawyers and put in more money into actual environmental cleanup.

CURWOOD: Let me turn to Wayne, now, Wayne Gilchrest from Maryland. What do you see as the top environmental priorities for Republicans in this session of Congress?

GILCHREST: Number one is understanding the nature of what this thing is, global climate change. What the heck is that? I think there's very little information in each of our heads about exactly what that is. Seems the further you get away from the original research, the more misinformation you get. So I think we need to make the effort to understand the nature of climate on planet Earth and how dynamic it is, And how human activity changes it. And then, you know, we're talking about the Endangered Species Act. I think if we approach that the right way, that's probably one of the most polarizing issues in the House. But I think if we deal with that in a comprehensive ecosystem regionalized approach, I think the Endangered Species Act is an issue that we ought to deal with in this session of Congress.

CURWOOD: Let me follow up on the climate change part of this. The White House has said that one of its top environmental priorities this year is going to be climate change. And in particular this credit for early action bill, which would essentially reward US corporations who voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. How realistic is it to think that that bill or some version of it would get through? First, Wayne, you might want to respond.

GILCHREST: Part of the process to change human activity, to reduce emissions, to make things better, still exists in our tax structure. I'm pretty confident that if we work hard enough, if we develop a cadre of members from both sides of the aisle, And we develop an action plan, if you will, we can get some of these things passed.

CURWOOD: Jerry Weller?

WELLER: I think such as most Republicans in Congress, our general philosophy is, people respond better to sugar than they do to vinegar. And if you change the approach from punishment to reward and incentive, you're going to find much greater interest in supporting initiatives, whether they're clean air or clean water, that reward good behavior.

CURWOOD: One of the prerogatives of the House of Representatives, of course, is to initiate those money bills, right? Especially those taxation bills. How much do you think the budget is going to play a role in environmental questions in this term, And what will we see in the way of budgetary riders, do you think, this time around? Congressman Gilchrest?

GILCHREST: I would hope that the authorizing committees can work and get their legislation done in a timely fashion, And that the appropriations process has a limited number of riders on it.

WELLER: Yeah, I agree with Wayne. You know, when the Democrats were in the majority in Congress, they put riders in the appropriation bills, And now that the Republicans are in the majority we've done the same. And some riders are more controversial than others. But I sense with the narrow majority in the House that there will be the desire to minimize the number of so-called riders.

CURWOOD: Jerry Weller, let me ask you what sense you have of where the environment falls on the new Speaker's list of priorities.

WELLER: Well, of course, you know, with Dennis Hastert, Denny Hastert, I believe, is one who has personally shown a lot of interest in the environment. He has 2 hobbies. One is, he likes to work on old cars, And then the second hobby is he likes to go fishing. So he's an outdoorsman. And you know, for him and his family, personally, that's important to him. But second is, in West Chicago, near the St. Charles area in northern King County, he had a major environmental cleanup issue where there was radioactive materials that had been buried over the years and disposed of essentially in a landfill process. And he led the effort in working with the US EPA and Superfund to make that a top priority and obtain the funding. So that was a long time ago, which started back when he was actually in the state legislature.

CURWOOD: What would you say, Wayne Gilchrest? Where do you see that the environment falls on the new Speaker's list of priorities?

GILCHREST: I think where it falls on the Speaker's list of priority is the responsibility of myself and people like Jerry. That if we make it a priority and we feel that it's important, then we need, like many other members are going to be talking to Denny in the next couple of weeks to make their issue a priority. So you'll be able to know that if Denny Hastert does not make the environment his priority, then it's because Jerry Weller or Wayne Gilchrest or Sheri Boehlert or John Porter did not do their job.

CURWOOD: Representatives Jerry Weller of Illinois and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland are both Republicans. Gentlemen, thank you both for taking this time with us.

WELLER: Well, thank you, Steve.

GILCHREST: Thank you, Steve.



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