Green Activists Are Seeing Red On Record of the 103rd Congress

Environmentalists see key legislation languish as session ends

FOR environmentalists, the Clinton administration and the 103rd Congress held out great promise. It seemed their agenda - reform of federal-lands policy, tougher pollution laws, Cabinet rank for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - finally would be realized.

But midway through President Clinton's first term and with just a few days to go before Congress adjourns, hope has turned to gloom.

``Virtually none of it has come to pass,'' says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, says most environmental leaders agree that ``this has been a very poor Congress on the environment - maybe the worst since the first Earth Day in 1970.''

Among the languishing legislation: the California desert bill, overhauling the Superfund hazardous-waste law, clean-water measures, reform of the 1872 hardrock-mining law, reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, elevation of the EPA to Cabinet status, and several wilderness bills.

While there is theoretically time to approve one or two measures, a congressional source working on natural resource issues says, ``We might not get a single bill.''

A major reason has been a high level of Republican-Democrat wrangling. ``The partisan gridlock is as bad as ever,'' observes Peter Kelly, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters.

In some cases, a minority of Senate or House members has been able to hold up legislation. The threat of filibuster by a handful of western senators (Democrats as well as Republicans) was enough to doom major reform of public-lands grazing. The action of a few lawmakers held up the California Desert Protection Act, even though a majority of both houses had passed it.

``Minority rule in Congress has absolutely crippled environmental policy,'' says Mr. Pope of the Sierra Club.

New concerns about the cost of environmental protection have emerged as well, including:

* The charge that tough laws (such as wetlands protection) amount to the ``taking'' of private property.

* The demand for ``risk assessment'' or ``cost/benefit analysis'' as part of any new regulations.

* The worry among state and local officials that ``unfunded federal mandates'' will leave them holding the bill for laws passed in Washington.

In many cases, these issues have been attached not only to environmental legislation but to less-related proposals like the ``National Competitiveness Act.'' The Environmental Law Institute reports that about eight risk-assessment bills or provisions are pending in Congress. According to Econet, an environmental online computer service, there are 30 proposals dealing with unfunded mandates.

One effect of this has been to send environmental lobbyists scrambling to fight political fires over wide congressional territory.

``We fought them to a draw, but it's depleted our resources,'' says Bill Roberts, legislative director of the Environmental Defense Fund. ``We were spread too thin even without this stuff.''

While environmentalists lay most of the blame on lawmakers (and expect Congress to be even more unfriendly after November's elections), they fault the administration as well.

During the first few months after he was sworn in, Mr. Clinton pushed for a ``BTU tax'' on fossil fuels to encourage energy efficiency. He increased the EPA's operating budget. And he led a Cabinet-level delegation to the Pacific Northwest to sort out the long-standing dispute over forest protection and timber production.

But the BTU tax failed to win congressional support. And even though Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has been a strong proponent of ``ecosystem management,'' the Endangered Species Act, and reform of federal-lands policy, the White House seems to have relegated its environmental agenda to a position well behind crime, health care, and international trade.

``Clearly they have marked themselves out as pro-environment, and they deserve kudos for putting forward a very ambitious environmental agenda,'' says Mr. Roberts. ``But when push comes to shove on these major issues, [the administration] hasn't produced results.''

There is also the realization among some environmentalists that they may have been too complacent when an administration perceived as ``greener'' than its predecessors came to office. ``I think people felt like the battle had been won,'' Roberts said.

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