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US's Democrats and Republicans break common bread over the fairness, or otherwise, of the Regulatory Reform Bill that could make industry accountable for the phenomenal fouling of America
MELANCHOLIA, with its miasma of tearful pomp and self-flagellating candour, is turning out to be the US's most unforgettable characteristic. Take Republican senator Bob Dole. "I regret that we have failed the American people again," he said, honking of elephantine angst. His attempts 'last month to ram the Regulatory Reform Bill through the House of Representatives created an orgy of almost mutinous dissent. The .regulatory reform" bill - guided by the "Grand Old Party" (the GOP, as the Republican party is called) would have drastically hobbled the Clinton administration's powers to force American industry into compliance with the country's strict nationwide environmental laws. The bill is shamelessly anti-green and pro-business, and is a primary theme of the current Republican agenda in Congress.
Ever since they captured a majority in the House last winter, the Republicans have turned regulation-slaying legislations into whipping boys. "They assumed control over Congress, members far behind them, promising the electorate that they would force the government - which the people are beginning to feel interferes far too much in their 'private lives' - to marginalise itself Hitting out at existing environmental laws has become the most effective of weapons," says Paul Wapner of the Washington-based School of International Service, American University, who i@ also a keen observer ofthe changing environmental trends in the US.
The blocking of the anti-regulatory bill has, in practice, turned out to be a very minor setback. The Republicans have more than made up for ground lost early this August by manouevring an "appropriations" bill through the House; it cut the us Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget by a 3rd. The cuts were specifically designed to deny the EPA the money it needs to enforce the laws governing water and air pollution, which were fill now viewed as landmark laws by the North American public.
"It is arnazing how active the many tufmoils it has succeeded in creating in the last 6 short months," laments Karan Capoor, policy analyst working with the 'E4vironment Defense Fund (EDP), a fro)ntrunning green NGO in the us. Last spring, in the name of regulatory reforms, the House passed a bill mandating administrative and judicial reviews.
It's next punching bag was the Clean Water Act. Passed in 1974, the Act gave the EPA the authority to restrict the levels of pollutants released into waterbodies by industry and municipal authorities, and also laid down specific provisions for preserving wetlands as valuable ecosystems. It armed federal authorities with broad powers to identify wetland areas. Last May, the Republicans came up with a bill which proposed an over- haul of the Act. An adroit pro-corporate turnaround, the bill barred federal regulators from imposing new restrictions on waste discharges from industrial plants into lakes and streams if the costs were found to outweigh the benefits. It shifted enforcement responsibilities to the states. And, most disturbingly, it drastically narrowed down the definition of which wetlands need federal protection, thereby delivering at least half the nation's wetlands to the altar Of "development".
Now, the Republicans have swung their guns around to the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The debate surrounding this particular law is growing more intense with every passing day. The ESA allows federal authorities to prevent loggers and private property owners from foraying into forests that are known to harbour rare and and often unique animal and bird species. Enacted in 1973, it is viewed as the broadest and most powerful law to protect endangered species and their habitat.
What the GOP proposes to do with it is quite remarkable. The party has charted out a new bill custom-designed to force the government to compensate landowners whose property values decline due to the enforcement of the Act. Also, if federal officials are keen to add a new name to the list of species labelled "endangered", they can do so only after the legislature votes on the issue and gives a nod.
So it is easy to see that the Republican campaign against "all- things-environmental" has been cold and unrelenting. So many legislations of this bigoted complexion have been introduced in the House during the past 6 months, that the us's environmental NGOs have set up special monitoring units to keep track of day-to-day shenanigans in the well of the House.
Paul Wapner, however, feels that the Republican-dominated Congress is moving exactly in the direction that it was expected to go right from the outset. "There is this sense of of frustration among the people," he explains. "They feel that the government has grown too big - eats up too much of their money and tells them what to do all the time. And it is time that it should be cut down to size." Besides, the regulatory restrictions imposed by government agencies like the EPA are often far too expensive to implement and to hold on course. So the farm and land promoter lobbies gripe about the Clean Water Act which they claim uses "unnecessarily complex technical standards to determine whether a piece of property may be developed." Private property owners cite the ESA as a perfect example of the "excesses of environmentalism".
In a state- of excitable overkill,khe GOP has branded the EPA the "Gestapo of the government" - implying that the ranks of the good are ranged on their side. "If they (government authorities) think that they can keep doing business under the old Clean Water Act,-they are solely mistaken," thundered Republican Congressman Bud Shuster, who is the moving force behind the bill proposing sweeping revisions of this law.
What is giving American environmentalists sleepless nights is the unpredictable and ostensibly whimsical attitude of the common citizen who, not so long ago, swore by green issues and fervently supported green laws-In @ 990, for example, a raging controversy erupted about the fate of the spotted owl in the forests of Washington, Oregon and northern California. But owl-saving would have meant the suspension of logging in federal forests and loss of employment for woodworkers.
The leading US NGOS joined forces to launch a bitter campaign against President George Bush, who won the round by rejecting their demand. "The jobs of many thousands of Oregonians are at stake," he shouted, and the spotted owl must perforce bow out of the race. Bush reeled under the barrage of criticism from both amateur and professional environmentalists. He was wounded, politically speaking, when NGOs handed him a bad rating on a score card that gave higher marks to other European leaders. Goaded by activists, a big chunk of the electorate turned against him.
Now, barely 5 years later, the Republicans are out for revenge, and trying at the same time to gain political mileage by trashing environmental laws. Wapner is still not convinced that the green-loving North Americans have actually and miraculously undergone a complete change of heart. "In the Bush regime, the environmentalists were on the alert, always," he says. "They never felt secure enough, so they kept the politicians under strict vigil and were ready to swoop down every time they felt the government was out of step." The membership of prominent enviromental activist groups like Greenpeace International, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club, had also soared to extraordinary levels. But with President Clinton at the helm of affairs, complacency had set in. He, and especially his second-in-command, vice-president Al Gore were known.
*,their pro-green sympathies. "The general feeling has been that government @vill take care of the environmental c 'oncerns," says Wapner.
But Clinton and his crew of Democrats flattened the climbing curve of environmental awareness of the laity and bombed out. Says Wapner, "They have made too many compromises and allowed, ithe Republicans too much space on &e environmental front."
The bill's almost unruffled passing is what is politely known as a Democrat "slip-up", virtually the party's monopoly ever since Clinton assumed office. The first vote on the bill was taken on July 28. The seesaw debate came to flashpoint over a set of 17 riders that GOP sought to inject into the bill; the riders' sole purpose was to stall, and if possible bar, the enforcement of major segments - literally the nervous system, of the us's environmental laws.
The bill has managed to bring to like one of realpolitik's most horrifying nightmares: votes split not on ground of party ideals but of individual humane ones. When you can sit at a table and break bread with your emmies is when political parties begin to but unsteady on their feet. Never before have the Republicans appeared so divided- 50 of them, belonging to the moderate wing, defied the Party whip and moved into the ranks of the Democrats to trash the riders. It was obvious that all those senators who had voted against the Clean Water Act in May, had gone back to their constituencies only to be greeted with brickbats from angry and disappointed people. The New York Times put its finger on the public's pulse: "The American people may have doubts about the viability of enviro laws. But they were certainly not prepared to stand by and watch them being torn apart." The riders were stripped and sent packing.
But when a 2nd vote was taken on August 1 at the relentless grousing of the Republicans, the riders were promptly re-introduced into the bill. This calamity occurred not because the moderate Republicans developed cold feet at the last moment, but because 8 Democrats whose votes were crucial, mysteriously failed to show up. The EPA ended up crippled, the Democrats took refuge behind lame penitence. The Washington Post wrote in a stern editorial: "The Democrats themselves let their victory dribble away."
It is only lately - and some say too irreversibly lately - that President Clinton has shown fang and claw. He sounded the battlecry just after the House passed the appropriations bill. "It is a stealth attack on our environment ... and a polluters' protection act," he fumed. He vowed to veto the bill if the Senate failed to stall it. "It allows poisons to mix in our drinking water, raw sewage on our beaches, oil refineries to pollute, and limits the commudity's right to know what chemicals are released in the neighbourhood," he said.
Unfortunately, his credibility graph at this point of time is rooting around at the bottom of the barrel. Earlier this month, he signed a spending bill that contains a single provision overriding all existing environmental laws, in order to encourage logging on federal land challenge- with a little 'glitch decisions which says that loggers perceive will have to tag every felling to a calamity, be it and meant fire, pests or drought. This was enough to inflame the country's green community. Sneers Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, "His moral compass is swaying so wildly that it is impossible to know where the Administration will end up."
An attempt made by a group of Democrat Congressmen to work out a compromise solution with the aggressively pro-corporate Republican senator Bob Dole on the Regulatory Reform Bill, has further deepened the misgivings harboured by the green activist groups. Concerned that their party was being portrayed as anti-business - anathema to the average American citizen - for having stymied Dole's anti-regulation bill, about half a dozen Senate Democrats hammered out a detailed package they hoped would help crack the impasse.
The Dole-initiated legislation would subject regulations that are already in force to undergo new reviews designed to help assess how effectively they control,risks to public health, safety and environment and, more importantly, at what cost. It would also give industry new legal footing to challenge regulatory perceive as grossly lopsided and meant to kill the till.
Business groups have assiduously promoted the legislation, claiming that federal *qulations cost far more than they ate worth on the street. Environmentalists, on the other hand, contents that the bill would roll back an entire generatiom of progress.
The golution offered by the mediating Democrats to Dole and his industrialist allies was rejected with bald disdain. "It (the package would , offered by the Democrats) totally emasculates the new application of common to sense and makes the bill regulatoy ineffectual," said a spokes which they person of the Affiance for as lopsided Reasonable Regulation, a pro-business forum. Dole to kill the promptly followed up with a list of specific it would objections to the offer generation made by the Democrats. The situation is now a subterranean rumble which could easily burst into the open. Congressmen are at present taking a break and the House is closed for the August recess. Both business groups and environmental organisations are cleaning their weaponry and plotting campaigns for what could go down in history as the messiest and most confusing grab for power in American history.