Congressional Attachments

by Carolyn Chase


ith the near-total focus of the media on the demoralizing foibles of human scandals, what's really going on in the halls of power where taxpayers are still paying hundreds of representatives and staffers to continue the business of the people and the nation?

Congress is scheduled to adjourn on October 9th even though they have passed only 2 of the 13 appropriations bills necessary to keep the government running.

Added to the mix have been nearly 50 anti-environmental amendments or "riders" attacking protections and reforms for national forests, wilderness areas, national parks, food safety, and water and air quality across the country. The riders are attached in a variety of ways to these must-pass spending bills.

It's at times like these that I have the hardest time keeping the faith that environmental security will ever be more than puppetry for partisan political shenanigans. There are no signs that the Republicans have any sincere intent to make environmental progress of any kind. The laundry list of giveaways, exceptions, bad projects and bad process are a testament to backroom, special interest deals over the public interest politics.

The most egregiously destructive of the various bill and rider combos is the measure to fund the Department of the Interior. The Senate version has amassed a staggering collection of 26 different environmental attacks via attachments.

To cite just a few examples, the bill includes provisions that would: undermine efforts to protect endangered salmon; mandate a substantial increase in taxpayer-subsidized logging
in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska; mandate the construction of roads through pristine Alaska wilderness; block the reform of National Forest planning; block long-overdue reform of hard rock mining regulations; and block a reform that would require oil companies to pay fair market value for oil owned by American taxpayers.

The House version includes a rider that would remove ecologically sensitive parcels from the Coastal Barrier Resources System in Florida. The rider would make areas eligible for federal development subsidies, including federal flood insurance for new, private development, at the expense of barrier islands that serve as nesting sites for loggerhead and green sea turtles, and are home to other endangered species as well.

It is a sign of the breadth of this backdoor environmental assault that controversial provisions have spilled over onto bills that are normally spared such treatment.

The bill to fund the Department of Transportation is the clearest example. House and Senate versions of this bill include six different legislative riders on a broad range of environmental matters. The highest profile transportation rider prohibits revision of outdated automotive fuel efficiency standards, a vitally important option for enhancing vehicle fuel efficiency, improving domestic energy security, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This provision is especially troublesome because it would block a sorely needed revision of the current regulatory loophole which allows sport utility vehicles to escape passenger car fuel efficiency standards.

Other transportation bill riders would: undermine long-standing environmental review requirements for a controversial California highway; promote road construction through protected Alaska wilderness; delay important safety requirements for the transportation of hazardous materials; allow, for the first time, use of helicopters in Alaska Parks and Wilderness areas, and relax high occupancy vehicle requirements on a New Jersey highway.

The bill to fund the Environmental Protection Agency has also been subject to environmental sneak tactics. Instead of legislative riders, conference language in the form of specific directives has been added that would delay cleanup of PCB-contaminated rivers, delay the control of mercury emissions from power plants, thwart air-pollution reductions in national parks and slow efforts to protect children from pesticides.

In addition, EPA oversight in the cleanup of many toxic waste sites would be ended and the bill still contains language that would keep federal personnel from carrying out activities in "contemplation" of international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The recourse to budget riders is - at its heart - an effort to avoid attention and debate on proposals that could not withstand public scrutiny on their merits. None of these proposed changes will undergo public hearings nor will they be put to a free-standing congressional vote. Rather, they are being buried inside major funding bills that must ultimately be enacted to keep the federal government operating.

With the end of the fiscal year rapidly approaching, House and Senate leaders must soon decide whether to retain the environmental attacks when the differences between the funding bills from the two houses are resolved, and perhaps merged into an omnibus spending bill.

In fact, the remaining time for Congressional budget action is so short that it will take everything Congress has to complete the necessary legislation to fund the Federal Government in time to avoid a shutdown, even without the controversy of the anti-environment riders.

If the environmental assaults are not abandoned, there is every reason to expect that
the most offensive budget bills will meet a presidential veto, perhaps ultimately leading to a federal government shutdown.

The last time they did this, a certain intern was pressed into special service at The White House. Here's hoping this time both the President and the American public has a more rational response, because the Congressional leadership is still clearly up to beltway politics as usual.

Information for this column was provided by the Natural Resources Defense Council,