New Public Steward For the Environment

FILLING up the overstuffed leather chair in his cluttered Capitol Hill office, and with his shaggy graying hair, droopy moustache, and eyeglasses, Congressman George Miller has the look of a linebacker-turned-professor. As chairman of the House Interior Committee, the California Democrat will need both the brains and the brawn to maneuver and muscle through the 103rd Congress the federal legislation he wants to protect the nation's environment.

He's got "a million things" he wants to do, but for the moment, he says, "I'm going to start by taking a step back and letting the Clinton administration take a first shot at the issues they want to address."

Miller can afford to be patient, although patience is not a character trait one normally attaches to the bluff and salty lawmaker. He spent 15 years battling special interests in the West before he finally won some measure of reform on federal water policy. It was a bruising process every step of the way.

Miller took over the important interior committee chairmanship last year when former Rep. Morris Udall withdrew because of health problems. As with the historic generational shift from George Bush to Bill Clinton, the ascendancy of a baby-boomer to the powerful committee post represents a new age in government leadership. In his case, it's not so much a change in direction as an increase in energy level - and a willingness to butt heads with opponents no matter what their party affiliation.

Miller is delighted about a new Democratic administration. As he relaxes in an office at the Rayburn Building being packed up for a move to more exalted digs befitting his seniority, Miller waxes enthusiastic about why he believes the cause of environmental protection also is strengthened by the new batch of incoming lawmakers.

"We're looking at a new Congress that is more urban, more female, more minority," he says. "It's a Congress that's going to be more attracted to these issues." Even before they're sworn in, he observes, freshman lawmakers are angling for appointments to committees dealing with environmental issues. Rep. Gerry Studds, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the merchant marine and fisheries panel, "has more people than he knows what to do with," Miller says.

Miller also sees a new aspect to environmental protection that should draw veteran lawmakers as well as newcomers, particularly given the state of the economy and the relative success of Ross Perot. This is the interconnect between the environment and the federal deficit.

"That pounding deficit really brings some new people to the discussion," he says. "There's billions of dollars either misused or recoverable" in the form of federal subsidies for the timber, mining, and grazing industries. Reform those, he says, and you can help both the environment and deficit reduction. The same is true for many questionable government construction projects like dams. "The deficit makes you start to rethink some of these ridiculous projects."

"The most important signal the new president can send - and I think will send," Miller continues, "is that there really is a public trust and public stewardship of the land - that these are the public resources of the people of America, not just there to be auctioned off, and ruined, and left behind." Such an attitude by the Clinton-Gore administration, he says, "will set an entirely different tone in how Congress deals with those issues."

When Miller is reminded of President-elect Clinton's less-than-phenomenal record on the environment in Arkansas, the lawmaker acknowledges that the basis of much of his confidence is the selection of Al Gore as vice president.

One of Clinton's campaign promises regarding the environment was a vow to hold a "timber summit" in the Pacific Northwest on the long-standing dispute over the northern spotted owl and other factors contributing to the decline in forest and mill jobs. "The message here is `Let's get this thing solved,' " says Miller. "These guys are going to want to solve problems."

So does George Miller. He can be expected to help the new administration whenever he can - and push ahead if he thinks it's going too slowly.

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