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Government : Partisan Politics Swamps Environmentalists : Congress blocked 9 major bills this year. Activists worry about legislative process, powerful minorities.

October 17, 1994|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — To environmental officials and activists who started 1994 with soaring expectations for new legislation, the year was one of dashed hopes, sobering political realities and, in recent weeks, commitment to a fresh approach in 1995.

Nine major environmental bills were shelved or rejected by the 103rd Congress. Only one survived the partisan wars--a bill President Clinton has signed to set aside millions of acres of California desert as wilderness and national parkland.

Acres of forest were razed to supply paper for the many legislative summaries, position papers, faxes and press releases generated for the proposed environmental bills.

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In many cases, environmentalists brushed close to victory. Some proposals, backed by coalitions of normally feuding interests, were passed by both houses of Congress only to be shot down by powerful minorities or strangled by partisan squabbles.

Observers on all sides agree that the experience bodes ill for the future of environmental legislation, especially an expected showdown over reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act next year.

"I believe in the role of government, in the role of democratic systems," said one weary Administration official with a critical role in environmental policies. "But this is the first time I've ever worried that we're in big trouble as a country, that our institutions are broken. These people are elected to pass laws, to be responsive to the needs of the American people. And apparently the Republicans are more interested in gridlock."

Officials and environmentalists are crafting strategies to avoid Congress where possible.

For environmental activists, this year's legislative debacle has rekindled a commitment to reform Congress and to energize support for environmental causes at the grass-roots level.

For the Administration, the experience has prompted interest in bypassing what it sees as an obstructionist Congress and to instead bring about change through the regulatory process, where the broad language of existing law is translated into the fine print of policy.

"We have problems, and the environmental groups have problems," said one senior member of the Administration's environmental team. "To some extent, our problems are mutual, and we need to figure out how to improve our ability to effect changes. The (environmental) community is beginning to go through some self-examination. . . . Meanwhile, we will be examining our options for moving forward" through the regulatory process.

Officials acknowledged that using regulatory powers to make policy has its drawbacks.

For one, the process is exhaustive and can tie up federal workers' hours for months or years. It can take months to draft a new rule, hold rounds of public hearings and sift through the mountains of public comments.

Even then, the regulatory process does not allow for sweeping changes because its purpose is to carry out existing laws. And finally, rule changes may last only as long as an Administration is in power.

The rule-making process in the past has been seen as a forum for brawling among groups on different sides--the kind of partisan wrangling most often seen these days on Capitol Hill. But Administration officials now view Congress as more fractious than the various interests that have feuded over environmental policy for two decades.

Administration officials believe that the rule-making process can be used particularly to make some of the changes sought in failed bills to overhaul the Superfund toxic cleanup law and to reform mining laws.

"Next year, we will return on two tracks: We will again pursue legislation, and we will also explore the full range of regulatory authority we now possess," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said after the mining reform legislation was scuttled.

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But if this year's session has prompted the Administration to avoid Congress where possible, it has goaded environmentalists into a head-on fight with their legislative nemeses. Americans want stronger environmental protection, they say, and lawmakers just don't get it.

But environmentalists are split over why that is so and what they should do about it.

Many leaders of the nation's largest environmental groups argue that Congress does not heed environmentalists because they have not made themselves a potent political force back in lawmakers' districts.

Those organizations, which include the environmental community's umbrella lobbying arm, the League of Conservation Voters, have sought to make environmentalists bigger givers and better political organizers out in the hustings, rather than better infighters in Washington.

Others, led by the Sierra Club, argue that Congress does not heed environmentalists because the institution has broken down under the weight of influence peddlers, monied special interests and partisanship.

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