The Anti-Enviromentalists in the 104th Congress Feed at the Corporate Cash Trough
Senator Slade Gorton (R-Washington) has an almost perfect record of supporting the timber industry. Is it at all surprising, then, that he received $112,000 in campaign contributions from timber-harvesting political action committees (PACs) between 1987 and 1995? In fact, the timber industry has invested more than five times as much political cash in trying to influence reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act as has the entire environmental movement.
Oklahoma Congressman Bill Brewster (D-3) was the Oil Marketing Association’s “Legislator of the Year” when he served in the state House. And in 1990, when he ran for Congress, it was oil money—$39,000 of it, from such giants as Amoco, Atlantic Richfield, Exxon, Shell, Sun and Texaco—that, as The American Prospect describes it, “pushed Bill Brewster over the top.” He also had help from a whole host of individual $1,000 contributions connected to an Oklahoma oilman (who later pled guilty to campaign finance fraud). Guess how Brewster votes when oil issues come up before his powerful Ways and Means Committee?
Though our elected representatives profess to vote their consciences, guided by their constituents’ interests, other, unseen forces exert powerful pressure. No matter what the people want, when it costs $500,000 to run a successful campaign for the House of Representatives, and $20 million to win a presidential primary, cash contributors will have the upper hand.
The timber, oil, gas, chemical and mining industries have left quite a money trail. During the first half of 1995 alone, industries whose legislative priorities include weakening environmental protections gave members of Congress over $6.1 million, with 81 percent going to Republicans. In contrast, all environmental groups combined gave less than $2,000 in the same period!
As for clean water, a group of mining, oil, gas and chemical corporations have poured money into weakening the Clean Water Act through a concentrated campaign strategy of giving through 267 political action committees (PACs). Dubbed the “Dirty Water PACs,” they have been fighting all year to gut protections of wetlands, cut funds allocated for pollution enforcement and drinking water standards, and require the public to pay them for not discharging pollutants into our waterways. These PACs contributed over $57 million to candidates between 1989 and 1994, according to The Sierra Club.
Timber companies are triumphant as old-growth forests come tumbling down. In the summer of 1995, Congress passed—and President Clinton signed—the Emergency Salvage Timber Sale Program, which was sponsored by Senator Slade Gorton (R-Washington). The law has given the timber industry the right to log previously protected trees in the national forest system. With less than four percent of our nation’s ancient and old-growth forest still surviving, the law put much of the virgin forest, including dwindling stands of 2,000-year-old redwoods, at great risk of becoming tract house decking. Was there a quid pro quo? Timber company PACs have given $448,711 to Congress during 1995, with 89 percent going to Republicans.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska has been described as “America’s Serengeti” because of the richness of the wildlife there. The refuge has been protected—as is 10 percent of Alaska’s Arctic coastline—from oil drilling. But if Alaska’s Senators, Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens, both Republicans, have their way, those protections will be lifted. Over the past six years, Murkowski received $122,835 and Stevens $90,425 from oil PACs.
Big Oil’s Big Money
When it comes to Congress, oil companies have a long history of getting a good return for their dollar. In 1992, the oil industry contributed over $23 million to congressional candidates, via PAC funds, individual donations and “soft money” funnelled to the two national parties. In return, the industry received over $8.8 billion from the government in “corporate welfare” subsidies and tax breaks. In the fall of 1995, the opening of the refuge was passed by both houses of Congress as part of the Budget Reconciliation Bill, which President Clinton vetoed.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, now running for president, was the sponsor of a sweeping bill designed to cripple laws protecting human health, environmental quality, consumer and worker safety. If enacted, the bill would stop federal agencies from creating new safety regulations, and would make it difficult for agencies to enforce current rules. Supporting Dole and his allies is Project Relief, a grouping of some 350 industry PACs, including such groups as the Chemical Manufacturers Association, Chevron and Wal-Mart. According to the Environmental Working Group, Project Relief contributed $7,297,786 to members of Congress in 1995 and 1996 (to date), with 76 percent going to Republicans. Dole’s presidential bid received $20,000 from Project Relief in 1995, and $6,500 so far in 1996. Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the leader of the House Regulatory Task Force whose goal is to push through such safeguard rollbacks, received $80,806 from Project Relief in 1995 and 1996. The other 20 members of the task force received on average $20,892 from the PAC in 1995.
Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) attempted to protect municipal drinking water standards from the ravages of Dole’s bill by offering an amendment to exempt Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules on bacteria levels in such supplies. He knows firsthand the dangers of unsafe water, having seen 104 people die and 400,000 people get sick from a cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee’s water supply in 1993.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), with the support of his Republican colleagues, killed Kohl’s amendment, but the measure itself (after passing the House) mercifully never came up for a vote in the Senate.
Who Gets the Cash?
For obvious reasons, the really big political action committee (PAC) money—and the most maxed-out $1,000 individual contributions—have gone to influential Congressmen and Senators, mostly Republicans. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, for example, who has raised more than $52 million for Republican candidates in the 1996 elections, is one of the most egregious offenders (see sidebar). According to a research report by Citizens Fund entitled “Polluter PACs Pay Congress to Weaken Health and Environmental Protections,” Gingrich is the second-largest recipient, at $90,275, of such funding in the House of Representatives. (The period studied includes the first seven months of 1995.) The champion money-taker, according to the report, is Congressman Tom DeLay of Texas, who, the report says, received $93,670.
It’s worth looking at Tom DeLay—the House Majority Whip (charged with enforcing party discipline and attendance)—in some detail, because he wields considerable power on Capitol Hill and apparently feels no shame in voting the interests of his major PAC funders.
DeLay, a former exterminator, received a “0” rating from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) in 1995, based on his votes for unrestrained logging and the closing of national parks, and against preserving the California desert, renewing the Clean Water Act and funding for the
EPA. Since 1991, DeLay’s highest rating on the LCV scorecard has been 9 out of 100.
The Washington-based Citizen Action, noting that toxic dumpers had given a record $6.5 million in 1995 campaign contributions to House members in an attempt, the report said, to avoid responsibility for cleaning up polluted waste sites, named DeLay as the number one recipient of the funding, at $106,171. (Gingrich was also a top five placer; he took $95,775.) DeLay won additional top honors for taking $14,000 from PACs associated with Superfund polluters in his own district.
Although polluter PAC money is, increasingly, reserved for Republicans, Democratic Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri is also a top placer, having received $65,500 in 1995. Of the top 20 Superfund PAC takers in the House, House Minority Leader Gephardt is the only Democrat, demonstrating that power—not party affiliation—is crucial in deciding who’s offered money and who isn’t.
For his part, Congressman DeLay works hard for the money. Even his Republican colleagues say that he is obsessed with “deregulating” the environment, and isn’t afraid to bully party members to get their votes. After DeLay tried, with strong support from anti-environmental lobbyists, to push Congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) into voting for bill riders that would have prohibited EPA enforcement of pesticide and toxic waste restrictions, Shays told The New Republic, “I would prefer that he not use the whip’s office for his own ideological issues. Some of us feel he’s trying to drag us with him to an uncomfortable extreme.” Another colleague commented, “He’s not just the right flank. He’s off the edge.”
DeLay, who would like to see the ecologically destructive pesticide DDT back in widespread use, is also pushing a bill that would withdraw the U.S. from the Montreal Protocol—which commits the U.S. to stop using ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Despite the fact that three American scientists recently won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work proving the ozone-CFC link, DeLay calls the science behind the ban “debatable.”
A House “Zero”
DeLay has a staunch ally in the aforementioned Dick Pombo of California, who boasts that he went to Washington specifically to rewrite the ESA. (Pombo has claimed, apparently falsely, that his own land was “devalued” after being declared a habitat for the endangered kit fox.) Pombo’s version of an ESA revision was considered too extreme even for Newt Gingrich; it required the government to reimburse property owners if species preservation efforts downgraded the value of even a portion of their land by 20 percent. Whales, otters and other sea creatures would be removed from ESA protection entirely, and the Secretary of Interior would gain new powers to list and delist species at whim.
Like DeLay, Pombo is an enthusiastic fund-raiser: He spent $800,000 to win reelection in 1994, with $250,000 of that money coming from agribusiness and real-estate interests supportive of his anti-ESA efforts. Pombo, who took $14,500 in 1995 Superfund PAC money and $16,075 in overall polluter PAC funding, could manage no more than an 8 on LCV’s 1995 scorecard. USPIRG calls him a “House Zero” for taking polluter PAC cash and then voting to retain polluter subsidies. Pombo, according to USPIRG, took $48,350 from polluter PACs between 1989 and 1995.
Other top takers of Superfund-related PAC contributions in the House include: Alaska congressman Don Young (LCV, 0), who, when asked what he thinks of when he sees a tree, replied, “I see paper to blow your nose,” $36,300 (see sidebar); House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas (LCV, 0), who consistently pushes anti-environmental legislation to the fore, $54,000; and Ohio Republican Michael Oxley (LCV, 0), who authored a Superfund bill that might well have been ghost-written by the polluters themselves, $75,900.
Nancy Watzman of Washington’s Center for Responsive Politics offers a succinct summation of the situation: “The campaign finance record couldn’t be clearer. The same industry groups lobbying to roll back environmental laws are pouring millions through PACs into lawmakers’ campaign chests.”
Swarms of Lobbyists
In a speech at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickenson University last March, President Clinton assailed the “small army of very powerful lobbyists” who, he said, were leading “the most aggressive anti-environmental campaign in our history.” Late in 1995, Clinton had signed a new lobbyist disclosure bill requiring lobbyists to at least report their activities, but it’s unlikely to slow the tide of special-interest cash and influence in Washington. According to the Ralph Nader-sponsored whistleblowing group Essential Information, anti-environmental lobbying groups are on the increase. ARCO, for instance, funds the National Wetlands Coalition, which opposes wetlands protection. Imperial Chemical’s front group attacking deforestation and climate issues is Citizens for a Clean Economy (with no grassroots membership in sight). 3M Corporation pours money into the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, which subsequently donates it to the Heritage Foundation, another global warming opponent. Coca-Cola is a big donor to Keep America Beautiful, which (despite the name and the famous commercials) lobbies against bottle bills and recycling.
The newly-released diaries of former Senator Bob Packwood (R-Oregon) give a rare and unvarnished glimpse into the world of big-time lobbying. In March of 1993, the diary recounts, Packwood had a breakfast meeting with Oregon homebuilders. “The Oregon home builders all said they were mad,” Packwood wrote. “I said [they] could make it up with me for a contribution of $10,000.” Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) could only nod in sympathy. The senator, who has taken a whopping $442,525 in PAC money and other gifts from the National Rifle Association since 1979, delivered the goods: He sponsored 18 gun-friendly bills in the period studied by the Center for Public Integrity.
When Congress is in session, lobbyists swarm around them “like groupies at a stage door,” as the Atlanta Constitution describes it, adding, “Armed with propaganda handouts and cellular phones, the lobbyists were in their special pen, indulging in the precious constitutional right to petition the government [in this case, against an amendment that would have curtailed oil drilling in Alaskan parks], darting pinball-fast around passing lawmakers.”
These traditional lobbyists still do their work openly, but a whole new group prefers to operate under cover of what’s known as “false flags”—green-sounding names for anti-environmental front groups, usually funded directly by pollution-generating industries. The Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations details more than 50 of such groups, from the Abundant Wildlife Society of North America (founded to lobby against endangered species protections) to the Public Lands Council (an offshoot of the National Cattlemen’s Association, whose main concern is grazing rights on federal property) and The Evergreen Foundation (whose supporters are timber industry groups).
Together, the many arms of the lobbying octopus have a profound effect on environmental laws, acting in concert to weaken re
gulations and protect the right to pollute. And they do it with impunity: According to Gannett News Service, fewer than a third of the country’s lobbyists even bother to register their activities. What’s needed, obviously, is a top-to-bottom reform of not only lobbying practices, but campaign financing in general. But despite the outrageous abuses of the system, systematic campaign finance and lobbying reform is unlikely to come from Congress acting on its own, but will require a concerted push from the grassroots (see separate sidebar). The 104th Congress has a shameful environmental record, and it will take more than the 1996 elections to wash away the taint. Instead, the process itself is in desperate need of attention.
Jim Motavalli is editor of E; Ellen Miller is executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC.