Who says the Lewinsky scandal has paralyzed Washington? The media's nonstop scandal coverage may give the impression that Congress is doing nothing but preparing to hold impeachment hearings. But don't believe it. Behind the scenes, it's business as usual here in the nation's capital -- which is to say that lawmakers of both parties are busy trying to sneak into law dozens of special favors for the special interests who shower them with campaign contributions.
Some of the most disturbing giveaways concern the environment and public health, issues with such middle-of-the-road electoral appeal that even the scandal-weakened White House has pledged to block the maneuvering. Since most of the favors are attached to spending bills that must pass by this Friday, Oct. 9, in order to keep the government running, the result may be a repeat of the Clinton-Congress stand-off that produced the government shutdown of 1995.
"It's a very clever technique, trying to divert the nation with the bimbo business while they're busy doing the polluters' business," says Philip Clapp, president of National Environmental Trust, a Washington advocacy group. "There's three times as many anti-environmental amendments being pushed this year as in 1995, but the difference is that in 1995 the media was covering the issue, so Republicans backed off for fear of a voter backlash."
Most of the giveaways come in the form of amendments known as "riders" because they ride on larger spending bills. Because the spending bills must be passed to keep the government working, they effectively give cover to riders too controversial to pass on their own. Among the estimated 49 anti-environmental riders are measures that would:
- allow electric utilities to keep emitting mercury into the air, despite indisputable evidence that mercury damages human health, especially among children and pregnant women;
- prohibit the executive branch from even discussing how to implement the international treaty on global warming signed last year in Kyoto;
- discourage the Environmental Protection Agency from ordering the General Electric Corporation to dredge New York's Hudson River to clean up the highly toxic PCBs that GE factories have emitted there (and in numerous other sites across the United States);
- blast roads through supposedly sacrosanct national wilderness areas.
"I'm afraid I've fallen off the pedestal for you guys," Rhode Island Republican Sen. John Chafee told environmental lobbyists last week after voting to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Chafee is often a friend of the environment, and his staff had met with environmentalists in February to plot a strategy to block the road, which would establish a precedent violating a basic principle of wilderness protection -- no human activity. But this month, Chafee joined in the Senate's 59-38 approval of the road after receiving strong pressure from Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, whose position as Appropriations Committee chairman gives him enormous power to grant or withhold favors to lawmakers eager to include their own pet projects in the end-of-year spending rush.
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The rider constraining EPA's regulation of General Electric's cleanup of PCBs was introduced by
Gerald Solomon, a Republican from New York. As chairman of the House Rules Committee, Solomon, like Stevens, has considerable power over his colleagues; the Rules Committee decides which bills come to a vote on the House floor. Solomon has a large GE factory in his district -- indeed, a factory whose previous production of PCBs has helped pollute the Hudson. Solomon also happens to have received more campaign contributions from GE this year than any other member of the House of Representatives. According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, as analyzed by the watchdog group the Center for Responsive Politics, GE had contributed $7,000 to Solomon through Sept. 1 of this year. (By contrast, most other members of Congress supported by GE received from $500 to $1,500.)
The rider that Solomon originally introduced sounded innocuous enough. It said the Environmental Protection Agency could not compel cleanup of PCBs until a study of the problem was completed by the National Academy of Sciences and distributed and analyzed by all parties to the dispute. But since General Electric is one of those parties, critics charged, the rider would enable GE to delay indefinitely any cleanup simply by claiming it had not finished analyzing the NAS study. On Tuesday evening, Solomon's rider was amended to deny GE veto power over EPA regulations. EPA was, however, still urged not to order dredging until after completion of the NAS study in 1999.
"GE has engaged in political and scientific conduct that is dangerous to the
health of New Yorkers," says Richard Brodsky, a Democratic assemblyman who chairs the Environment Committee of the New York Legislature. Brodsky, whose district includes some of the Hudson Valley communities endangered by PCBs, believes GE is opposed to full-scale dredging "because there are some 70 other PCB-contaminated sites across the country and dredging them all could cost GE hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars."
"That's just not something we'd have a comment on one way or the other," says David Warshaw of General Electric.
Michael Power, Solomon's press spokesman, says he is unaware of how much GE contributes to his boss and argues that since "GE is a huge, worldwide company, it's ridiculous to imply that its success rides on what Congressman Solomon does in relation to the Hudson River." Power insists no one knows what's best for the Hudson: It might be full-scale dredging; it might be letting the PCBs dissipate naturally. Solomon simply wants the decision to be "based on sound science," Power says.
Although Republicans like Solomon and Stevens are behind many of the anti-environmental riders now under consideration on Capitol Hill, some Democrats have also gotten in on the act. It was Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., who reportedly authored the rider that would delay EPA regulation of mercury emissions by electric power plants. "The latest version of the rider would prohibit EPA from issuing rules on mercury for 18 months, which is totally unacceptable. There's no need to delay action on such a toxic chemical," says Anna Aurilio, the staff scientist at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an environmental and consumer watchdog group.
Mercury is a neurological toxin that attacks the central nervous system and is especially harmful to developing fetuses. It is mostly found in lakes and rivers -- 40 states warn pregnant women not to eat fish caught in certain waterways. The chief sources of emissions are from medical and municipal waste plants and coal-fired power plants. Existing EPA rules will reduce mercury emissions from medical and municipal waste facilities 90 percent by 2002 (compared to 1990 levels). That leaves coal-fired power plants as the largest remaining source of mercury, responsible for one-third of total emissions.
Yet the political clout of the coal and electric utility industries has so far blocked meaningful regulation. The Molihan rider, for example, would prevent the EPA from regulating coal plants' mercury emissions until the National Academy of Science had completed a study of the issue. Linda Schoumacher, a spokeswoman for the Edison Electric Institute, the utility industry trade association, claims the EPA itself has acknowledged further study is needed before regulation could be justified. But the EPA said no such thing, according to an EPA official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"This is the standard rubric of industries facing regulation -- that the science is imperfect," says this official. "And it's true there's always more you'd like to know. But that shouldn't be an excuse for not acting on what we do know." The Molihan rider's requirement of a National Academy of Science study, adds the official, would be "completely redundant, because we've already done a comprehensive mercury study at EPA." The real effect of the rider would be to delay regulations that are inevitable, thus causing untold additional cases of mercury poisoning.
The coal industry, joined by segments of the oil and auto industries, also
supports the rider that would gag executive branch officials regarding the Kyoto treaty. "The Kyoto rider is so disingenuous," says John Stanton, legislative director of the National Environmental Trust. "Republicans say they're not opposed to the treaty as long as we can get developing country participation. Then they put through the back door a rider that would prohibit the State Department from talking with EPA about how to encourage developing country participation."
Other anti-environmental riders would let sport utility vehicles continue to evade passenger-car fuel-efficiency standards, delay safety requirements for the transport of hazardous materials and pay timber companies a multimillion-dollar subsidy for cutting in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
Citizen mobilization has stopped two anti-environmental riders (one would
have tripled logging in three national forests in California, the other would have expanded cattle grazing on federal lands), and environmentalists hope that phone calls from angry constituents will frighten lawmakers into abandoning the rest. Last week, 153 Democrats signed a letter to President Clinton urging him to veto any appropriations bills containing anti-environmental riders. Those 153 votes are enough to prevent a congressional override of a presidential veto. In that event, Congress and the White House would find themselves in a game of chicken reminiscent of 1995: Their collective failure to pass the appropriations bills would force the government to shut down until one side or the other backed down.
Last time, it was the Republicans who suffered politically for shutting down
the government. Perhaps they calculate that Clinton is too weak to oppose them now. Or perhaps they welcome another government shutdown. After all, it
was a White House intern's pizza deliveries during the last shutdown that led to the scandal that is now so usefully distracting attention from the real business of