Members of the 105th Congress should fulfill their responsibility to the people who elected them by cutting wasteful spending and attacking what their predecessors have largely and embarrassingly ignored: billions of dollars in corporate welfare for polluters. While the 104th Congress dramatically reformed social welfare programs, it lost most of its resolve when it came to taxpayer handouts to polluters.
These polluter pork programs extend from coast to coast - from below-cost timber sales in Alaska's Tongass National Forest to New Jersey's expensive and unnecessary Passaic River Tunnel. In 1996 the leaders of the Green Scissors campaign - Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common $ense, and the US Public Interest Research Group - targeted 47 polluter pork programs whose elimination or reform would save taxpayers over $39 billion. Thanks to a diverse coalition of taxpayers, environmentalists, and like-minded members of Congress, the last Congress was provided with ample opportunity to slash such subsidies.
During the 104th Congress over 10 programs targeted by the Green Scissors coalition came before the House or Senate for votes. The coalition's victories included extension of a mining patent moratorium which prevents the mining industry from purchasing public lands containing billions of dollars worth of gold, silver, and other minerals for $5 per acre or less. Opposition from the mining industry and its Senate cronies to the continued ban on this 124-year-old handout was one of the factors contributing to the paralyzing government shutdown in 1995. Another Green Scissors victory was a $123 million cut in the unnecessary Clean Coal Technology program. The denial of funding for the controversial Auburn dam near Sacramento, Calif., was another achievement. The project would have cost taxpayers $711 million, destroyed miles of canyon ecosystems, and ignored cheaper flood control alternatives. That victory meant defeating a House subcommittee chairman who had vowed to resurrect the dam, which Congress killed in 1992.
Sadly, when it came to cutting billions of dollars in welfare to corporate polluters, some of the largest subsidies on the books escaped the budget ax for another year. For example, the federal government continues to provide millions in taxpayer handouts to timber companies by funding road construction to access our national forests. Road construction costs, combined with below-cost timber sales, have resulted in a loss of over $1.9 billion from the US Forest Service's timber program over the last seven years. An attempt to cut the road-building subsidy failed by one vote in the House last summer.
THESE subsidies not only distort the market but squander publicly owned natural resources. Other programs subsidize pollution of the environment with radioactive wastes. GE, Westinghouse, and other companies are wasting tax dollars to design nuclear power plants that even they admit have no market. Another radioactive handout goes to Argonne National Labs in Illinois and Idaho. They will get $50 million this year for a program that not only violates our country's nuclear nonproliferation policies but would increase the amount of nuclear wastes.
Congress also left in place a federal grazing policy that annually loses millions of dollars by charging large wealthy corporate ranchers grazing fees far below fair market value. Also, Congress funded the $700 million Animas-La Plata water project that will threaten two of Colorado's last free flowing rivers and fail on its promise to deliver water to native Americans.
If the 105th Congress is serious about balancing the budget and reducing the deficit, it should take up where the 104th Congress left off, or where it neglected to start. Congress and the Clinton administration should wield green scissors and decisively cut these wasteful polluter pork programs.
* Anna Aurilio, a staff scientist with the US Public Interest Research Group, and Jill Lancelot, legislative director for Taxpayers for Common $ense, are based in Washington.