WASHINGTON — If 19 months of Republican rule in Congress has proven anything new about American voters, it is this: Most of them care deeply about protecting the environment.
Republicans learned this lesson the hard way this year, as their campaign to ease environmental regulations in the name of smaller government provoked widespread outrage.
In recent weeks, Republicans have worked to "green" their rusty image: passing bipartisan bills to better protect food and tap water from contamination. Both bills cleared Congress by whopping margins, and President Clinton may sign the food safety bill today.
In a Congress hobbled by gridlock, the environmental debate has emerged as a rare point of consensus and reiterates a fundamental principle of American Democracy: that nothing gets done on Capitol Hill without input from both political parties, a host of interest groups, the White House, and the public.
"You can't legislate over the back of the public interest, nor can you ignore the concerns of industry," says Gregory Wetstone, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "You need broad cooperation. That's how we make successful policy."
Both the Safe Drinking Water Reauthorization Act and the pesticides bill were born in the House Commerce Committee, a panel with a long history of bipartisanship and a historically heavy workload. By some estimates, Commerce plays a role in 40 to 75 percent of all non-budgetary legislation enacted. Already, the panel helped design one of the 104th Congress's signature achievements: telecommunications reform.
The drinking water bill came to life after intense closed-door negotiations between Commerce ranking member John Dingell (D) of Mich., and Chairman Thomas Bliley (R) of Va.
The final agreement split the difference between the demands of water providers and environmental groups. While the bill strengthens federal regulations governing the worst waterborne contaminants, it does not force water providers to guard against every possible pollutant. In addition, the bill puts aside money to help poor communities comply, and standardizes training for water treatment facilities nationwide. It also includes a "right to know" provision, that requires water authorities to mail pamphlets to customers each year that list the contaminants in the water and their possible health effects.
Water companies and conservatives appreciated the more-specific language on contaminants, while liberals and environmental groups liked the safety net for poor jurisdictions and the stepped-up attack on the worst pollutants. Both sides praised the right-to-know provision.
But the bill's future is uncertain. As it wound through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, members loaded it with pet projects, and differences remain between House and Senate versions. If a conference committee can't finish the bill by August, federal money earmarked for drinking water programs will revert to the Treasury, and the bill could sink.
Yet even if the drinking water bill fails this year, it has already served the vital purpose of providing Commerce Committee leaders with a working model for ending one of the nation's longest legislative feuds: what role government should play in controlling the amount of agricultural chemicals in food.
"Dingell and I had good results on safe drinking water," Congressman Bliley says, "so we thought, why not carry this over to reach agreement on food safety as well?"
The timing was right. Not only were Republicans searching for a way to show their green side, but farmers groups were anxious to scale back the "Delaney Clause." This 38-year-old law requires that no trace of pesticides, however small and harmless, can be allowed in processed foods. Because of advances in detection technology, the clause has become an expensive burden on agriculture.
By the same token, the Environmental Protection Agency and many environmental groups wanted a deal. Part of the pressure stemmed from a 1994 National Academy of Sciences report which found children's diets make them especially susceptible to contaminants from pesticides. Since the Delaney Clause only applies to processed foods and not raw foods like fruits and vegetables (which small children eat more of) environmental groups supported it.
In addition, a federal court recently ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to redouble its enforcement of Delaney. In order to comply, the EPA would have been forced to ban the use of as many as 50 common agricultural chemicals, a situation farmers say could prompt massive crop failures and price increases.
In a similar backroom session, Commerce leaders devised a bill that would scrap the Delaney Clause and replace it with a standard for all foods: that any contaminant allowed would not pose any reasonable chance of harm.
Once again, Commerce leaders resisted wholesale changes in the bill and sought input from the White House. The result is a bill that could stand as the 104th Congress's most significant environmental achievement.