Sneak Attacks and Sleazy Riders

Environmental battle lines were clearly drawn in the 1990s, and largely along party lines. George Bush declared himself the “environmental President,” but launched few new initiatives and did nothing to reform his own party. Did it cost him reelection votes? Very likely, yes. Despite the Clinton administration's failure to fight for green reforms it ostensibly supported, environmentalists have seen some leadership from the White House, especially in the appointment of such tough-minded administrators as Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Carol Browner. In fact, Allen Mattison of the Sierra Club's Washington, D.C. office has praise for “one of the most pro-environmental administrations of the modern era,” a sentiment echoed by Werner Fornos of the Population Institute and others.

Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Carol Browner: A tough fighter for the environment, who just launched a civil suit against polluting coal-fired power plants.© Reinstein/The Image Works

Opposing Clinton on the environment was a block of congressional Republicans, led by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. In the early 1990s, these conservatives took anti-environment positions in about 80 percent of their votes, according to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). When Congress yielded to their control in 1994, the way was cleared for a Republican-sponsored rollback on environmental legislation.

The pattern became obvious: Industry lobbyists could write their own legislation. In early 1995, Representative Bud Shuster (R-PA) worked with “experts” from International Paper and other companies to draft a bill gutting the Clean Water Act. The following month, Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) introduced an Endangered Species Act revision authored, according to New York Times, “by a group of lawyers who represent timber, mining, ranching and utility interests.” The Senator himself said of the bill, “It doesn't undo everything that's been done. But I suspect it would end up having that effect.”

Congress' frontal assault on environmental regulations ultimately alarmed the public and threatened to cost the party votes in the 1996 elections. “We did enact laws for a reason, and I don't like to see my party overturning the very laws that we put through,” said Joanne Wood, a frustrated Republican voter interviewed on National Public Radio that same year.

Newly aware that environmental issues are important to the public, conservatives switched tactics in the latter half of the decade. Instead of trying to repeal environmental protections head-on, legislators switched to a “trojan horse” approach in which unpopular legislation is passed by attaching it as a “rider” to an unrelated but important bill. For example, a recent emergency spending bill for disaster relief included riders that would allow new logging roads in national forests and reduced fees on oil extracted from public lands. Last year's generally pro-environment transportation bill contained a rider prohibiting any tightening of fuel economy standards for cars and trucks (see italCurrents this issue). By 1998, there were over 40 anti-environmental riders attached to critical appropriations bills.

Another strategy has been to strip environmental programs of their financial support. In 1998, the House cut funding for endangered species protection and President Clinton's climate-related energy efficiency programs. “Rather than attempting to repeal or gut these laws head-on, they're doing it by starving the programs,” says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

According to LCV, activists in the next decade need to be extra vigilant against these tactics. They should also watch for creative wordplay. A 1998 bill designed to open large tracts of national forest to logging was coined “The “Forest Recovery and Protection Act.” LCV President Deb Callahan says that such maneuvers are designed to “confuse the issue enough so that the American people will tune out.”