Breach of Contract: Congress' Stealth Campaign Is Now out in the Open

By Bergman, B. J. | Sierra, November-December 1995 | Go to article overview

Breach of Contract: Congress' Stealth Campaign Is Now out in the Open


Bergman, B. J., Sierra


Congress' War on the Environment, which looked like an irresistible force as 1995 began, encountered an immovable object around mid-year: public opinion.

When they cast their ballots last November, few Americans dreamed that they were voting for dirty air, polluted water, and ravanged wilderness. And few realized, as the House plowed through its Contract With America, that "anti-regulatory" was a euphemism for "anti-environment." But thanks in part to the efforts of Club activists, voters soon started getting the message: their right to a safe, sustainable environment was being traded away in exchange for fistfuls of campaign dollars.

The anti-environmentalists haven't been stopped yet, but they are clearly losing momentum. And politicians are slowly waking up to the perils of trashing a quarter century of hard-won protections for public health and public lands.

"Four out of five Americans say they want environmental protections strengthened, not weakened," says Sierra Club President J. Robert Cox. "And the more they know about what this Congress is up to, the less they like it."

Furthermore, they're giving Congress an earful--quite a change from the first hundred days of this congressional session, when media coverage of the polluters' hidden agenda was virtually nonexistent. The stealth campaign was a short-term success: the three main anti-environmental planks of the Contract--amounting to a "Polluter's Bill of Rights"--passed easily through the House, which rubber-stamped nearly everything Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) proposed. Of the three, however, only a watered-down unfunded-mandates measure actually made it into law. The Senate has not been nearly as eager as the House to pass its own version of so-called takings legislation, which essentially pays polluters to obey environmental laws. And Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) had to pull his comprehensive "regulatory reform" measure--the centerpiece of the War on the Environment--after losing three consecutive attempts to send it to the floor for a final vote.

Polluters were dealt a body blow in the days that followed. In a vote that shocked the GOP leadership, 51 Republicans refused to go along with a sweeping effort to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the laws on wetlands, drinking-water standard, auto emissions, and even food safety. And though the leadership prevailed in a second vote--in large part due to the absence of at least a dozen opponents of the measure--the defections signaled a growing concern of many in Congress. …

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