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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / RODGER SCHLICKEISEN

Putting Public Interest Before Party's Interest

More Republicans must oppose the GOP's stealth attack on the environment.

September 17, 1998|RODGER SCHLICKEISEN | Rodger Schlickeisen is president of Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife. These views are his own

As a boy I read with fascination a book by future president John F. Kennedy, "Profiles in Courage." It told eight stories of U.S. senators--Democrats and Republicans--who in spite of great political risk stood in the public spotlight and argued their true principles over an opposite position held by their own party.

To me this was real leadership, senators willing to endanger their standing in "the world's most exclusive club" by being true to what their consciences said best served the public interest.

The book comes to mind now as I consider the noble practice of politics that it portrayed, in contrast to the recent performance of so many Republican senators willing to support their party leadership's backdoor efforts to undermine environmental laws for the benefit of special interests. Because the public overwhelmingly supports environmental protection, the stealth strategy being employed is to bury scores of anti-environmental provisions in complex money bills needed to keep the government running.

While this tactic has been seen before, its massive use as part of a deliberate strategy to thwart the implementation of major laws is new. The strategy first appeared in mid-1995 after it became clear to the new congressional leadership that directly weakening environmental laws by rewriting them was exceedingly unpopular with the public. These leaders then shifted to the covert strategy of accomplishing much the same goal by employing individual provisions buried in other legislation.

The new strategy was hugely successful, so much so that by the end of the last Congress no fewer than 30 anti-environmental provisions had been enacted into law. Taken together, they resulted in the 104th being ignominiously labeled the most anti-environmental Congress ever.

But with the appropriations for fiscal 1999 still to be passed, the current Congress already has approved 17 anti-environmental provisions, all attached to other legislation. Senate leaders are scheming to rush 52 more into law under cover of the blizzard of appropriations bills planned for the closing weeks of Congress. If these become law, they will seriously undercut forest protections, deter cleanup of toxic waste, weaken efforts to save endangered species, prevent action against global warming, harm coastal wildlife habitat, delay needed mining reform and much more.

It is a sad reality that the overall strategy has been promoted by the GOP leadership and accepted by the majority of Republican senators. No fewer than 65 of the 69 anti-environmental provisions enacted or waiting for approval are championed by Republicans.

When and how did such a radical transformation occur in the party that earlier helped enact our most important environmental laws? At what point did the party redefine political conservatism to mean anti-conservation wherever someone wanted to make a buck exploiting nature? To embrace hostility toward environmental protection that goes well beyond legitimate issues of size and scope?

It is too easy to explain it as simply a result of capturing control of Congress in the 1994 elections. It probably had more to do with who gained the major influence over environmental issues as a result. Among those elevated by the Senate seniority system to positions of power over environmental protection were Republicans Frank Murkowski of Alaska, Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, Slade Gorton of Washington, Kit Bond of Missouri and Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Within two years, Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska and Trent Lott of Mississippi also ascended to more powerful positions. In the 104th Congress, six of these eight Senate leaders scored zero on the League of Conservation Voters' environmental scorecard. Domenici and Stevens scored 4% and 11% respectively. The average for all Senate Republicans was 13%. Senate Democrats scored 84%.

Fortunately, a handful of Republican senators have demonstrated their own "profiles in courage" by resisting party leadership. But their efforts to remind colleagues of the party's earlier commitment to the environment have been largely ignored.

We hope this will change in the coming weeks as the remaining 52 anti-environmental provisions could come before the full Senate. If Republican senators are ever going to show that they still have an environmental conscience, this should be the time.

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