GEORGE BUSH has decided now is the time to make his move on the environment.
Several factors are behind this, according to administration insiders. While the State of the Union address tonight will concentrate on the economy and potential budget cuts, the proposed 1993 budget due out tomorrow includes some noticeable increases for fighting pollution and protecting natural resources.
Former White House chief of staff John Sununu is no longer around to prevent administration officials charged with environmental protection from tooting their horn. The Democratic presidential front-runner (Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas) is the weakest in his party's field on the issue. Recent polls showing the environment dropping as a subject of major concern make it safer for Mr. Bush to embrace it.
Michael Deland, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, says that "two things in particular are a testament to where the president's coming from."
"First are the budget numbers," Mr. Deland says. "There have been significant increases across the board at a time when we are obviously in a difficult budgetary situation, to put it mildly, and at a time when many other domestic programs have received substantial cuts.
"Second ... are the increases in EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] enforcement. For example, the EPA has collected more civil penalties in the three years of the Bush administration than it has in its entire previous history. Also, many more years of jail sentences, terms of imprisonment, criminal penalties paid, and so forth."
Deland also points to renewal of the Clean Air Act; a 10-year ban on offshore oil drilling off the West Coast, Florida, and New England; $1 billion for acquisition of new parkland, wildlife refuges, and recreation areas; a tripling of the rate of "Superfund" toxic-waste site cleanup; and "the most environmentally progressive farm bill ever."
"It's fair to say that George Bush has fulfilled most of his pledges and in many cases has exceeded expectations," says another administration official.
This is not a universal opinion. The League of Conservation Voters (headed by Democrat Bruce Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona) last year gave Bush a on its environmental report card.
Similarly, a recent report by the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the World Wildlife Fund warned that the administration's proposed redefinition of wetlands would have a "severe biological impact" on Florida's Everglades.
While admitting some good environmental appointees and the budget increases, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth said, "Let's face it, Ronald Reagan was an easy act to follow."
The FY 1993 budget figures due out tomorrow include a 6 percent increase for EPA operations (up 54 percent since Bush took office), 25 percent more to help the Energy Department clean up nuclear-weapons sites, $1.75 billion for Superfund, $2.5 billion for municipal wastewater treatment, and $1.85 billion for the "America the Beautiful" program (acquisition and maintenance of parks and other public lands).
Critics like Ralph Degennaro of Friends of the Earth point out that because of inflation, the EPA budget actually has increased only 16 percent since 1979 - a span of time during which the agency's workload has doubled.
Administration officials counter that the Democratic-controlled Congress must share any blame for underfunding of environmental programs. Some examples: Lawmakers have cut Bush's Superfund budget 10 percent each year for the past three years, halved the president's request for wetlands protection under the farm bill, and cut by a similar amount proposed administration spending for a sewage-treatment facility along the US-Mexico border.
A recent poll by USA Today/CNN/Gallup showed 60 percent listing the environment as "very important" in the presidential election. But this was only No. 11 out of 16 issues, behind economic issues, education, health care, and crime. This may give the administration breathing room to pursue its environmental goals with less political pressure.
In any case, the recent White House personnel shuffle does please those dealing with environmental issues.
"Sununu was a damper on communicating our record. It just was not one of his top priorities," says one administration official. "I think [new White House chief of staff Samuel] Skinner is more open-minded."
Environmentalists have been critical of Vice President Dan Quayle and the Council on Competitiveness he chairs for trying to defang environmental regulations. But administration officials say the issue is overblown.
"Their influence on environmental regulation is and will continue to be overrated," says the administration official.