Easy Riders

Attempting to Push an Anti-Environmental Agenda, Congress Goes Into Stealth Mode

Budget bills—they’re hefty, intricate, and mostly dull laws without which the federal government grinds to a halt. But faced with a public that won’t tolerate decreased environmental protection, Republicans in the 105th Congress used spending bills like Trojan horses—benign on the outside, but with all sorts of anti-environmental legislation lurking within. Will the 1998 elections, which brought in five new House Democrats and was widely seen as a repudiation of Republican obstructionism, end the stealth tactics? It’s unlikely, because conservatives have found a politically painless way to get unpopular legislation enacted.

Each year, Congress must enact 13 spending bills in order to fund the government into the next fiscal year, and since these bills must be passed to ensure the government is fully funded, lawmakers attach to them unrelated and often unpopular provisions called “riders,” provisions which usually couldn’t stand the heat of a floor vote.

Photo: Salvage Logging

Environmental riders have become the tool of last resort for timber companies wanting to conduct unpopular forest cuts and "salvage logging" operations.

These riders have become the weapon of choice for lawmakers who want to dismantle environmental legislation, while at the same time avoiding public debate. “Congress is trying to pursue an agenda that’s unpopular and weaken environmental regulations,” says Greg Wetstone, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For decades, riders were only occasionally employed for peripheral issues, but the last five years has seen an explosion in their use to compromise environmental legislation. In fact, 1998 was a banner year for such measures. While the public was riveted on President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, members of the 105th Congress attached nearly 50 riders on seven different appropriations bills, even bills that have traditionally been spared such measures, such as those that fund veterans’ programs, housing and the post office.

“The 105th Congress was the most outrageous and aggressive in pushing an anti-environmental agenda,” says Gawain Kripke, director of economic campaigns at the Washington, D.C.-based Friends of the Earth.

The riders that survived after President Clinton signed the omnibus spending package in October included measures to: delay a rule for an oil royalty to be paid by companies drilling on public lands; block new federal mileage standards for cars and trucks (which haven’t been updated since 1985); prevent federal spending on grizzly bear reintroductions in Idaho and Montana; delay the ban on the ozone-depleting pesticide methyl bromide until 2005; build a road through a sensitive Alaskan forest, allow grazing on 25 million acres of public land without conducting any environmental review; stall for one year the revision of a 19th century mining law; cut back on protected areas in Florida, and increase public logging in California.

Fortunately, not all of the riders survived the frantic, last-minute budget deliberations. Of those killed, the most egregious included a measure to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing compliance with Kyoto’s global warming standards, and another which would have gutted the Endangered Species Act.

Although individual riders are generally narrow in focus, taken as a group this year’s crop is a significant step backwards in environmental protection. According to the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), the riders will cost the public more than $130 million, wreak immeasurable havoc on America’s wildlands, and benefit the usual suspects—oil, mining, ranching and timber industries.

During the budget process, Vice President Al Gore called the rider technique a “sneak attack” that tried to bury “special-interest riders deep in budget bills where no one will find them.” In response, more than 140 Democratic lawmakers signed a letter urging President Clinton to veto the bills.

Opposition from the public is just as fierce. A survey conducted by the Wilderness Society shows three-fourths of voters are “bothered” by the use of riders to relax environmental regulations. Still, more than 20 riders passed, leading many to believe that the major environmental battles of the future will occur not on the floor in open debate, but in closed-door committees.

“I hope this isn’t a trend,” says Lexi Schultz, a PIRG staff attorney. “But I do think with the passing of the omnibus bill, it sends a bad message that this is the way things get done. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened again next year.”

“Nowadays, it’s impossible to come to a compromise on environmental issues through the regular legislative process,” says Kripke. “Those who want to undermine the environment have to use the budget process—which is inappropriate—to push their agenda.”

Since the riders, in effect, change environmental law while sidestepping the normal legislative process, many experts wonder what place such measures have in our society. “Does what happened in Congress correspond to notions of democracy?” Kripke asks. “The answer has to be no. It’s supposed to be a public process, and now that’s being subverted. Very few of these measures would pass on their own merits. Even fewer would not be vetoed.”

Especially disconcerting is that in the rush to get home and begin campaigning, many members of Congress had only a few hours to review the 40-pound, 4,000-page budget bill that was eventually passed. Wetstone argues, quite simply, that “Congress is turning away from the democratic process.”

Why? Because Republicans learned after their landslide congressional victories in 1994 that dismantling environmental laws wouldn’t be tolerated by the public. After Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America” followers were lambasted by voters for their ecological insensitivity, GOP leaders had to turn elsewhere to push their agenda. Now that Newt himself has been ousted as Speaker, and the reportedly more collegial Robert Livingston of Louisiana elevated to the post, compromise could be in the air. If Congress returns to a straightforward give-and-take—a big if—“government in the sunshine” can only benefit.