Sleazy Riders

End-of-year legislation and the GOP's assault on the environment.

Fri Nov. 14, 2003 3:00 AM EST

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry said on Wednesday that, as president, he would set up a new federal commission to curb the influence of industry "special interests" on environmental policy. Standing by the once heavily polluted Merrimack River in New Hampshire, Kerry slammed the current administration's environmental record:

"I'm running for president because, at every turn, George Bush has favored tax cuts for the wealthy and breaks for the special interests over the protection of this river and other rivers and streams all across America. He is buckled to powerful lobbyists and special interests rather than standing up for the long-term interests of our children."

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Kerry, whose environmental bona fides are not in question -- most recently he strongly opposed the nomination of Michael O. Leavitt to head the EPA -- accused the Bush administration of prematurely ending investigations of power plants and energy companies that allegedly released thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants into the environment.

Meanwhile, Republicans were busy doing everything they could to prove Kerry right. In the Senate, the GOP is currently working to delay, eliminate or circumvent all sorts of environmental regulations. Herewith a sampling:

1) Congress just approved an amendment to the defense authorization bill that effectively means the Navy can ignore federal protection for whales, dolphins, and other ocean mammals that get in the way of military operations and maneuvers. The 2004 Interior Department spending bill, which was enacted last week, does away with a 14-year moratorium on oil exploration in Alaska's Bristol Bay. The bill also contains provisions that make it easier for commercial loggers to chop down trees in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

2) A series of amendments proposed by Ted Stevens of Alaska would undercut the efforts of Alaska's regional fishing managers to preserve fish habitats and species by giving control of the market to processors, not fishermen.

3) An amendment written by Missouri Senator Christopher Bond aims to strip California of its authority to set its own air quality standards. California recently adopted a new set of standards for lawn and garden equipment that would require Briggs & Stratton (an engine maker in, guess where? Missouri) to make cleaner engines. The amendment would not only roll back the California rule but also pre-empt the right of other states to adopt California's standards, a basic right under the Clean Air Act.

4) And let's not forget the energy bill, currently stalled in committee. Democrats are resisting GOP attempts to pack it with anti-environment provisions, most notably drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A New York Times editorial describes items 2 and 3 as "cases in which lopsided measures were attached last-minute to major, must-pass federal spending bills. If passed, both would benefit small minorities of wealthy businessmen and undermine basic environmental protections."

The Times is scathing about the pork-barrel politics at work here.

"End-of-session spending bills provide fertile ground for mischievous last-minute amendments, often at the expense of the environment. Bill Clinton vetoed many dubious legislative riders. The Bush administration, however, seems largely indifferent to the practice, especially when the legislators involved are Republicans of some standing.

... The fact that Mr. Stevens's son is associated with at least one of the riders' beneficiaries is of less concern than the damage they could inflict on the marine environment and the precedent they could set for fisheries policy elsewhere."

Republican lawmakers claim that all this is necessary in order to balance "excessive restrictions" with industry needs. Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said that "the Republican Party is clearly applying common sense and balance as it relates to environmental rules and law. Environmental regulations far too often in the past...were promulgated in response to hysterical assertions by special-interest environmental organizations that have come to demagogue environmental issues." Many critics, however, worry about the effects of these bills on both the environment and the integrity of the political process.

The Washington Post writes:

"[S]ome critics say the GOP is going too far in removing what they consider vital public-health safeguards. [Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.)] said in a recent letter to colleagues that major energy legislation now in a House-Senate conference 'will endanger our nation's air and water, further jeopardize endangered species, and limit environmental review and public participation in energy projects to the benefit of special interests.'"

What next? Here's the Times again.

"The Bond amendment will be challenged by California's two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. They deserve their colleagues' support, as do John McCain and Olympia Snowe, who will try to send the dreadful Stevens amendments into the legislative oblivion they deserve."

Let's hope so.