Pragmatism Beats Out Ideology In Clinton Environmental Policy

While administration has made some moves, most `green' bills still await action in 1994

THE Clinton administration took office with a decidedly ``greener'' hue than its predecessor. Environmentalists had worked hard for the Democratic ticket in 1992, particularly hopeful that with Al Gore Jr. as vice president they would have considerably more influence at the White House then they'd had over the previous dozen Reagan-Bush years.

But during its first year in office, the administration has proved to be more pragmatic than environmentalists had wanted and less ideological than its political foes had feared. Part of this has to do with a Congress that moves with more deliberation than speed on major legislation; in some cases, lawmakers have blocked executive-branch reforms.

There is also a centering effect once campaigning turns to governing and interests have to be balanced to prevent gridlock. Most mainline environmental groups have become more willing to accept compromise and a ``market approach'' to solving problems.

In terms of initiatives, the administration has made its mark:

* Those with strong environmental backgrounds are in major positions of power: former League of Conservation Voters president, Bruce Babbitt, is Interior secretary; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Carol Browner was an aide to Gore when he was a senator, before she became Florida's top environmental official; White House environmental-policy chief Kathleen McGinty was also a Gore aide; the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Resources Institute all have former officials in senior administration jobs.

* One of the first moves under the ``reinventing government'' program was the reorganization and redirection of the Bureau of Reclamation. Gone are the days of huge dam projects; the large water-project agency will now spend far more time promoting conservation.

* After years of dispute, the United States government is moving forward with a plan to end gridlock over Northwest forests and endangered species. Neither the timber industry nor environmental groups are thrilled with it - a sign that the administration is avoiding extreme solutions. Similarly, Mr. Babbitt is promoting compromises on other endangered species, allowing some development in habitat areas for California's gnat catcher and the Southeast's red-cockaded woodpecker.

* President Clinton has increased US funding for international family-planning programs, including those offering abortion information. And, unlike President Bush, he signed the 1992 Earth Summit's Biodiversity Treaty, designed to help reduce the loss of species worldwide.

* Mr. Clinton has sided with those who believe global warming ``clearly is a growing long-term threat with profound consequences,'' as he put it in his October speech announcing measures to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Clinton has set ``targets and timetables'' for reducing carbon dioxide and other gases - something the Bush administration had sought to avoid - but his program relies heavily on voluntary efforts.

* Continuing efforts begun by Bush administration EPA chief William Reilly, the agency under Ms. Browner has markedly increased the number of criminal and civil enforcements against polluters. There have been 2,110 such cases this year, compared with 1,935 in 1972 and 1,755 the year before that.

One of the administration's most-controversial moves was establishment of a ``National Biological Survey'' to inventory the nation's plants and animals. This is part of the effort to protect whole ecosystems, instead of focusing on single species threatened with extinction.

Critics say the program, which could take years to complete and involve thousands of government scientists, would clash with private-property rights. Babbitt said as much in a speech to environmental writers: Protecting habitat ``is going to limit the ability of some landowners in some places to do anything they want.''

Of the major environmental legislation due to be settled during the 103rd Congress, most has been left for 1994. This includes several landmark laws due, or overdue, for reauthorization: the Clean Water Act, the Magnuson Act protecting marine resources, and the Endangered Species Act.

The ``Superfund'' toxic-cleanup law, which could expire next September, also awaits action because it is complicated and costly and also because Clinton administration officials are at odds over the extent to which individual companies should be held financially liable.

Also hung up in the legislative mill is the proposal to elevate the EPA to Cabinet status. Much wrangling on Capitol Hill has centered on whether to make a new ``Department of Environmental Protection'' consider the economic costs and benefits of new regulations. The Clinton administration wanted to abolish the White House Council on Environmental Quality - charged with overseeing the landmark National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 - but has had to accept a scaled-down version to appease important Democrats in Congress.

ABBITT vowed after his confirmation to reform the laws regulating mining and ranching. But his efforts to quickly raise grazing fees and impose royalties on hard-rock miners who profit from federal lands met with a wall of opposition from Western lawmakers, including prominent Democrats. It's uncertain whether Babbitt will prevail in an election year.

There were other setbacks for the administration as well. Early in the year, Clinton had to abandon his plan to raise money and encourage energy conservation by taxing the heat content of fuels, the so-called ``Btu tax.''

Recent parallel polls of the public and business executives show why the environment continues to be a contentious issue for an administration hoping to boost the national economy.

The consulting firm Arthur D. Little Inc. reported last month that while 74 percent of the public says high priority should be placed on environmental cleanup, only 44 percent of business executives share that belief. Sixty-five percent of the individuals surveyed say the government is spending too little on cleaning up the environment - 20 percentage points more than the business leaders.

``Nobody is satisfied,'' said Arthur D. Little senior vice president Ladd Greeno. ``The public wants better environmental performance, and they want it now. Businesses, on the other hand, are spending vastly increased amounts of money and time on environmental issues than they were a few short years ago, but they are frustrated by government regulations that too often result in a misdirection of efforts and priorities.''

As the Clinton administration is learning, sorting out those environmental efforts and priorities is more than a one-year job.

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