A Tale of Two Countries

Article excerpt

As I shuttle back and forth across the land as the Sierra Club's executive director, I often feel as though I live in two countries. One is in Washington, D.C. In this country, many people believe that Americans no longer care about protecting their environment. White House staff tell me that taking environmental leadership would hurt the President. Members of Congress sympathetic to environmental issues tell me that all they hear about is "unfunded mandates," not the quality of rivers, lakes, or drinking water.

Forty-nine members of the U.S. Senate sign a letter suggesting that they are opposed to any action to prevent toxic run-off from contaminating streams and lakes. Every Republican member of the Senate Environment Committee lines up against a reasoned Superfund proposal; many say they will vote for no bill that holds those who dump waste responsible for cleaning it up. The "national" newspaper, The Washington Post, editorializes that environmental protection is costing too much.

The other country is where everyone else lives--the folks who elected the administration and the Congress. Out in this greener land, few people claim that a clean environment is too expensive or politically risky. A Montana poll shows that the most popular proposal for that state's wilderness is the one that protects the most land. Newspaper editors in Columbus, Georgia, and Tuskegee, Alabama, thunder against repeal of clean-water mandates. A jury in Alaska finds that Exxon is indeed liable for the devastation it wrought on Prince William Sound.

Joined by the Sierra Club, local antitoxics groups all over this country want the Superfund to retain liability for dumpers. In more than 30 separate court cases on private property "takings" issues, the public good wins in all but three.

There's nothing new in finding a "disconnect" between Washington and the rest of the country. What is different now is that Washington is callously moving away from its citizens. This is the result of two very corrosive forces.

First, money talks louder than ever in politics. "This is the first Congress where most members know nothing of politics but the influence of money. They just have no history of bucking their donors," says a staff member of a key committee. "The President simply cannot stand up to money," a senior House Democrat and early Clinton supporter tells me. …