In recent years, environmental policy has been the topic of some of the most heated and acrimonious debates in Congress. The environmental debate stands out because it tends to draw distinctions along regional and ideological lines, rather than simply partisan ones.
Environmentally minded Republicans have emerged as leaders in this debate, striving to work toward responsible environmental protection in a bipartisan fashion. The environmental advocates, generally from the Northeast and Midwest, face private-property advocates (including fellow Republicans) from the South and West as their most vocal opponents. These members view almost any environmental regulation as an unjustifiable infringement on individual rights and economic growth.
Environmentalists realize the need for flexibility in regulation. But they also realize that environmental protection is crucial to us, our children, and future generations.
Our main point, simply put, is that the health of our environment directly affects the health of us all. Despite the fact that environmental Republicans are sometimes labeled "out of step" with our party, that label is inaccurate. Rather, we are carrying on the honorable Republican tradition of concern and care for the natural environment.
More than 80 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that nothing short of defending our nation in wartime "compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us." Famous for his dedication to nature and conservationism, Roosevelt came to exemplify a Republican tradition of concern for the environment - a tradition perhaps started by President Ulysses S. Grant who, in 1871, placed 2 million acres under federal control to create Yellowstone, America's first national park.
In this century, Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover followed Roosevelt's lead by signing laws that established federal-state cooperation in such areas as fire prevention, reforestation, and research in forestry and soil conservation.
In the early 1970s, the grass-roots environmental movement in America sprang into action, following years of rapid industrial development and population growth. Over the same period, environmental regulation was lax or nonexistent. A generation raised with automobiles, disposable diapers, Styrofoam cups, and plastic flatware began to educate our consumer society and take aim at the environmental problems that came along with our modern lifestyle. Here, too, Republicans were at the forefront. On April 22, 1970, Republican President Richard Nixon acknowledged the importance of environmental concerns and celebrated the very first Earth Day by creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by executive order.
It is often forgotten that many of the advances sought by the early environmental movement were made by the Nixon administration. Yet a number of key environmental laws taken for granted today, nearly two dozen in all, were developed and signed during those years.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 mandated the present environmental-impact-statement process, which requires the government to study the environmental effects of major federal projects. The Clean Air Act seeks to reduce various emissions and pollutants and improve outdoor air quality. The Clean Water Act of 1972 is responsible for protecting water quality in our nation's rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act required the EPA to set and enforce national standards to ensure the safety of our tap water. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 strives to prevent extinction of endangered plants, animals, and habitat. President Gerald Ford continued in this tradition by signing into law the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, establishing the federal program regulating the treatment of solid and hazardous wastes.
Unfortunately, some of these important laws are under attack today. A measure to reauthorize the Clean Water Act, generally considered among the most effective of the major environmental laws, was considered on the House floor last year. The bill as designed would have relaxed or waived numerous federal water-pollution control regulations, weakened treatment requirements for toxic pollution, and removed the majority of our nation's wetlands from protection.
Environmental proponents, however, worked together to restore some crucial coastal protections, necessary to preserve our beaches and fishing areas, that would have been repealed by the bill. Still dissatisfied, the group proved to be a critical voting bloc and managed to gather 185 votes in opposition to the bill - enough to sustain a presidential veto.
The strength of these Republicans was demonstrated again last year on a key vote regarding 17 anti-environmental "riders" attached to the annual appropriations bill that funds the EPA. These riders prohibited the EPA from implementing or enforcing regulations under a number of major environmental laws. The House passed a Republican-sponsored amendment to remove the riders, but in an unusual procedure the vote was reversed three days later by a tie vote. Still, the strength of the pro-environment effort sent a strong message to the Senate, and the riders were ultimately dropped from the final version of the bill.
More recently, in June, the House passed a bill reauthorizing the Safe Drinking Water Act. This legislation will greatly enhance the safety of drinking water for all Americans by focusing on contaminants that pose the most serious risks to human health and giving state and local water systems the financial and technical resources to combat them. House Republicans voiced overwhelming support for this measure, which was the result of bipartisan efforts.
"Green" Republicans, far from being "out of step," are right in line with the increasingly environmental consciousness of most Americans. We are holding dear one of our party's greatest principles - that we must work to ensure that our children will inherit a world as good as, or better than, the one we inherited. With Teddy Roosevelt, we will keep on fighting for this high ground. And why shouldn't we expect success? We have Republican history and tradition on our side.
Rick Lazio (R) represents New York's Second District in Congress and is a member of the Speaker's Task Force on the Environment.