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THE PHRASE "DON'T GLOAT" COULD be heard wherever Republicans gathered last week, especially among right-wing columnists like AM radio talk-show host Mike Gallagher, Rush Limbaugh's apparent heir. Phil Clapp of the National Environmental Trust (NET) and a well-connected Beltway environmentalist, said the Republican National Committee actually sent out a "Don't gloat" memo to party faithful and warned them not to make the mistakes of the Gingrich Congress, which promised much but delivered little.
Talk of moderation isn't allaying the fears of environmentalists, who are feeling particularly vulnerable these days. Not only do Republicans control the presidency and both houses of Congress, but a memo that insiders are calling "the doomsday list" showed a hardcore anti-environmentalist as the top pick for every committee chairmanship with power to say yea or nay on environmental legislation.
Publicly, some conservationists said the razor-thin Republican majority in the Senate -- and the fear of a voter backlash in 2004 -- will head off sweeping anti-environmental legislation. But many were not so sanguine. The absence of post-election gloating merely seemed like a refinement of a strategy that evolved after the 1994 Gingrich blow-back. This new, improved strategy eschews frontal assaults in favor of using arcane congressional procedure to weaken environmental laws.
The NET's Phil Clapp is one of the doomsayers. Clapp, who grew up in Encino, predicted that the revamped energy bill promised by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in the wake of the election is likely to contain a provision directly aimed at California's new law limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles, signed by Governor Gray Davis in July.
Auto manufacturers already are fighting the California law in court, arguing that the state is engaging in a thinly veiled attempt to mandate fuel-economy standards, which can only be done by Congress. In October, the Bush administration took the unprecedented step of joining the lawsuit on the side of the automobile industry. Clapp said a revamped federal energy bill is likely to contain a provision specifically precluding California's attempt to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.
Another top environmental lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that an almost random confluence of political factors might give oil companies their best chance yet to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. Because the country is now facing a deficit, Congress must pass a budget-reconciliation bill to bridge the gap between revenues and expenditures. These bills present prime opportunities to roll back environmental limits on big industry because they cannot be stopped in the Senate by a filibuster -- which holds up legislation by interminable debate.
In 1995, drilling proponents almost succeeded in opening the Arctic using exactly this strategy. President Clinton vetoed that budget-reconciliation bill, shutting down the government, and just about everything else in the U.S., for weeks. With a president who supports drilling in the Arctic, that scenario won't play out again.
The Bush administration is already weakening environmental laws by changing the rules governing how the laws are carried out, said Nancy Stoner of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Chief among these targets is the National Environmental Policy Act, first signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970. This law, which has been called "the environmental Magna Carta," requires that agencies gather public comment and consider alternatives before going ahead with major development projects that could affect the environment. Projects requiring review range from logging sales in national forests to large housing developments and highways to any development regulated by federal law. The National Association of Homebuilders and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials are championing changes in the way this law is enforced.
In California, changes proposed by the Bush administration could affect attempts to control pollution on beaches, to upgrade sewage-treatment plants, and to regulate airborne particulates, one of the major air-pollution problems affecting both Los Angeles and the Central Valley.
Brock Evans, a veteran environmentalist who heads the Endangered Species Coalition, said that "indirect attacks" on basic environmental protections through legislation dealing with forests, transportation and energy are likely to make sweeping changes on the country's landscape. For example, the administration put forward a bill in September that would exempt from lawsuits logging on up to 10 million acres of national forests under the rubric of fire prevention. With Idaho Republican Larry Craig, a longtime timber-industry booster, likely to head a key Senate subcommittee, this bill now has a far better chance of sailing through Congress.
Evans said he expects a record number of anti-environmental legislative "riders" -- amendments tacked on to larger pieces of legislation, such as defense or appropriations bills. "From a political and practical standpoint, especially with no help from the administration, we may only be able to muster political support in the Senate for five or six filibusters, out of what could be 200 riders," Evans said.
In the Senate, most bills need a sweeping majority of 60 votes to avoid the possibility of a filibuster. But even on C-SPAN you can only bore your colleagues to death so many times. "A filibuster is like having to hit the parking brake to stop the car from rolling down the hill," said Phil Clapp. "Everything comes to a grinding halt. How many times will Democrats and Republicans who care about the environment be willing to slam on the brake?"