Banner year for environmental legislation. Grass-roots support, bipartisan effort credited with turnaround

As members of Congress head home for the elections, they take back one of the best environmental track records in years. Legislation to clean up hazardous-waste sites, improve drinking water, protect the nation's lakes and rivers, and remove asbestos from schools passed Congress this session. Several other bills passed either the House or Senate. Having come so close to passage, many of these bills promise to be reintroduced early in the next session.

``In the 26 years since I have been in Congress,'' says Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, ``this is the most environmentally oriented session I have been in. There is a growing desire for environmental legislation across the country.''

Environmental issues are faring better in Washington because of several trends: growing support by mainstream Americans, a bipartisan approach to environmental issues in Congress, and greater political sophistication by environmental groups.

Several national polls over the last few years indicate a rising concern for environmental issues.

In 1981, when asked if tough environmental standards were important, regardless of cost, 45 percent of those polled agreed. By January 1986, 66 percent of those polled agreed to the same question. Another poll in 1985 showed 63 percent of the respondents felt government environmental regulations were not strict enough.

A Harris poll at the beginning of the year found that 7 out of 10 Americans opposed cutting funds for the cleanup of toxic materials to help the deficit.

``This growing awareness can be traced to increased concern about toxic wastes,'' explains Alden Meyer, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters. ``It's one thing to read about Love Canal half-way around the country, and another to read of the situation in your own back yard. Americans feel a much more direct threat to their and to their children's health than in the '60s and '70s.''

But Mr. Meyer doesn't attribute all of the legislative successes to public awareness. He also points to growing effectiveness by environmental organizations. The early years of the Reagan administration galvanized environmentalists as a result of what they considered some of the worst threats to their agenda. According to Meyer, two changes occurred after Reagan took office: (1) a broad-based appreciation for electoral participation, resulting in significantly improved political savvy by environmental groups, and (2) improved efforts at coalition building, both within the environmental community and with other groups.

``There were a number of votes where the environmental groups pulled out all the stops, using the media and grass-roots groups,'' Meyer says. ``Some of those measures passed with only a handful of votes. It has not been an easy Congress, just more environmentally aware,'' he continued.

While environmental activists have been very critical of the Reagan administration, the issues have not divided along party lines on Capitol Hill. Much of the legislative success this session is due to close cooperation between a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic House.

``There is no partisanship on the Hill,'' says Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey, the original author of the Superfund bill just signed by the President.

Representative Florio and other House Democrats worked closely with Republican senators to push environmental bills.

While praising their Republican colleagues on the Hill, the Democrats are still critical of what Florio describes as a ``hostile'' administration on environmental issues.

Of the five major environmental bills passed by Congress, the President has signed two, reversing his threat to veto Superfund.

White House sources predict a signature on two more, the Water Resources and Asbestos bills. The President opposes the Clean Water Act since Congress passed it at three times the spending level the White House had recommended.

Looking ahead to the 100th Congress, many of the unfinished issues like acid rain, clean air, liability for nuclear accidents, and pesticides will be taken up. Whether the momentum achieved over the last two years can be maintained is difficult to predict.

``Most members are convinced that the public supports environmental legislation and are reluctant to vote against it,'' says Robert Livernash, editor of a congressional publication that follows environmental bills.

Mr. Livernash cautions, however, that ``reaching the budget-deficit targets next year will make it difficult for expensive environmental legislation.''

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