The 104th Congress: It's Definitely a Paler Shade of Green

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THE 1995 political landscape on environmental issues looks to be the setting for a race between confrontation and cooperation. On the surface, confrontation seems to be leading as the Republican-led 104th Congress heads off on its great adventure this week.

The GOP's ``Contract with America'' doesn't explicitly deal with the environment, but it is full of proposals that could dramatically impact existing laws and make it much more difficult to pass new ones. New committee chairmen in some cases are eager to slow down, if not reverse, the course of environmental protection.

This is likely to come as proposed regulatory reform with an emphasis on risk assessment, stricter property-rights protections, and an attack on federal laws that have to be paid for by state and local governments. A recent analysis in Business Week magazine calls it ``The GOP's Guerrilla War on Green Laws.'' Sierra Club media director Roni Lieberman calls the Republican agenda ``a war on the environment.'' The Natural Resources Defense Council says ``it would increase red tape, increase taxpayer burden, increase opportunities for frivolous lawsuits, and radically decrease the effectiveness of existing environmental and health safeguards.''

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The environment wasn't a big deal in most congressional and gubernatorial elections (except in the West, where Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's enthusiasm for reforming traditional mining, ranching, and logging practices was a major conservative target). But the 104th is definitely a paler shade of green.

According to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), which ranks voting records and positions, Republicans in the last Congress scored 17 of a possible 100 on environmental votes, compared with 73 for the now-minority Democrats.

Alaskans Frank Murkowski and Don Young, who will chair natural resource committees in Senate and House respectively, scored in single digits in the LCV poll. And if anything, GOP newcomers are more conservative than their senior partners.

So does this all mean increased legislative wrangling, more court battles, and perhaps the ``gridlock'' that nobody wants?

The `94 election was a loss for Democrats and especially the relatively pro-environment Clinton administration. And many newly elected lawmakers are eager to get big government off the backs of private property owners and businesses.

But even more important to members of Congress than ideology is reelection, and recent polls show no slacking off of public desire to clean up the environment and protect natural resources.

A December survey of 1,200 voters conducted for the National Wildlife Federation found 62 percent supporting current environmental-protection laws or wanting tougher ones. Just 18 percent said existing regulations go too far.

Another public-opinion survey last month by GOP pollster Vince Breglio had 64 percent (including 60 percent of Republicans questioned) agreeing that clean and renewable energy sources should be emphasized in federal research funding. On the other hand, large majorities (including, again, most Republicans) thought more-polluting nuclear and fossil-fuel research funding should be targeted for budget cuts if the Energy Department is to reduced.

The trend in national environmental policy has been toward cooperation and compromise and away from exhausting legislative and legal battles. Examples include ``pollution swapping'' by utilities, the recent accord to make the San Francisco Bay delta more healthy, and the Clinton administration's Pacific Northwest forest plan approved just before Christmas by a federal judge. For most people (and an increasing number of companies), cleaning up the environment and protecting resources is no longer a debatable issue. Any attempt to reverse the progress made here over the past 25 years may be read as a politically punishable offense. @QUOTE = The GOP's `Contract with America' is full of proposals that could dramatically impact existing environmental laws and make it more difficult to pass new ones.

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