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.
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