By the Environmental Protection Agency’s own estimate, the nation now spends 2.5 percent of its gross national product on pollution control. Regardless of whether, in absolute terms, that is too much money or too little, even environmental advocates concede that much of it is money not well spent, a consequence of overly rigid and wasteful laws. The Superfund hazardous waste law, for instance, generates billions of dollars in legal fees each year as companies fight to avoid paying for costly cleanups that sometimes have little or no effect on the environment. Recently regulators tried to use the Clean Water Act to force San Diego to spend $3 billion to upgrade a sewage treatment plant, even though scientists said that it would not make the Pacific Ocean environs significantly cleaner.
Newt Gingrich may have been exaggerating last February when he declared that the environmental movement has totally broken down, but he made a valid point when he derided the EPA’s absurdly expensive rules. Had he and his Republican colleagues stuck to horror stories such as the upgrade to the San Diego treatment plant, they might have been able to ride the wave of discontent over senseless rules and accomplish some useful reforms. Instead the Republicans fell prey to extremism. They launched the broadest assault on environmental law in the EPA’s 25-year history. They tried to close national parks, open wildlife preserves to oil drilling, neuter key regulations--in short, to scale back nearly every law and agency intended to protect air, water, land, and wildlife.
For many, Don Young, the archconservative representative from Alaska, typifies the Republican attitude. Young, who decorated his office with a Kodiak bear, a Dall ram’s head, and the penis bone of a whale, among other trophies, and who once claimed that scientific research on endangered species was part of the socialist agenda, now chairs the House Resources Committee. He led an effort to rewrite the Endangered Species Act to greatly reduce protection of plant and animal habitat on private land. Young’s move would have exacerbated the destruction of wildlife habitats by land developers; habitat destruction is already the biggest single threat to 95 percent of all endangered species, including the Florida panther, the black-footed ferret, and the gray wolf.
Over in the Senate, the Republican majority called for a bill to require that the cost of any new environmental legislation be weighed against potential benefits. Majority leader Bob Dole spearheaded the effort with a byzantine 23-step review for all new environmental and health rules, potentially creating more red tape than it would eliminate. Environmentalists criticized the plan as merely a way of derailing antipollution and other environmental programs. If it were in place in the 1970s, we would not have been able to ban leaded gasoline, and many more children would have been poisoned,’’ said EPA administrator Carol Browner.
Ultimately, environmental protection proved more popular than Republicans had reckoned. Armed with surveys showing public support for it, President Clinton threatened to veto most of the Republican agenda. Dozens of House Republicans made it clear that they would not vote with the party. In a gesture of appeasement, Gingrich created a task force on the environment and appointed both a moderate and a conservative as coleaders, but it was too late. The environmental backlash had begun, and the Republican coalition collapsed.
The GOP, however, succeeded in inflicting a fair amount of damage. Their majority held together long enough to pass deep budget cuts in the EPA, which may reduce cleanups at Superfund sites and cut down enforcement of existing pollution laws. They also curtailed environmental research, apparently in the hope that the less scientists know about the environment, the fewer weapons they will have in pushing for legislation that protects it.
In the end, though, the GOP managed to push through only a fraction of its original agenda. House Republicans could have had a lot of what they wanted, but they overreached, says Jim Baca, a Wilderness Society board member and a former director of the Bureau of Land Management. I can’t believe how much they overreached.