"Contract with America" is War on Environment


With the exception of the first Earth Day in 1970, the most significant environmental revolution in U.S. history is now underway. But this revolution is a counter-revolution; it's a war against the environment.

Newt Gingrich, congressman from Georgia and Speaker of the House of Representatives, is leading the charge. It's part of the Republican Party's much heralded "Contract with America."

You didn't know that the Contract with America was a war against the environment? Well, join the club. And wake up and smell the coffee before it's too late.

A Vision for Environmental Disaster

In a report released last month, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) described the bleak environmental vision of Newt's army of Congressional revolutionaries, as follows:

- Suspend enforcement of major provisions of environmental laws.

- Exempt the oil and gas, pharmaceutical, machinery, and food processing industries, among others, from requirements to obey specific provisions of environmental law.

- Cut off funds to assist local communities to build or improve drinking water and sewage treatment plants.

- Suspend numerous environmental programs.

- Enlarge public subsidies for some industries, such as taxpayer-supported construction of logging roads in National Forests for the timber industry.

While the long-term goal of the Contract crusaders may be the total elimination of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), their immediate goal appears to be to cripple it. The EPA is being hit with the largest disproportionate budget cuts inflicted on any major federal government agency. The House appropriation bill which contains these cuts also includes, in the words of the NWF, "17 separate provisions either ordering the EPA not to enforce environmental law or exempting specific industries from having to obey the law."

Says the NWF report: "Taken as a whole, the House plan constitutes the broadest and deepest attack ever mounted against laws that protect public health, the environment, natural resources and wildlife." This is the view of virtually every major environmental organization in this country, including such stalwarts as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

NRDC refers to the Republicans' attack on environmental protection as a "stealth attack" which uses the budget process to promote "dirty water, dirty air, more pesticides, and unsafe drinking water." Our environmental laws are being rewritten, NRDC explains, "by the lobbyists of mining companies, real estate speculators, oil companies, pesticide and chemical manufacturers."

Reflections on the Contract

Why has it taken so long for the Republican-led war on the environment to become public knowledge? And why are we seeing so little public response?

The answers to these questions can be found in the same epidemic of public disillusionment and cynicism which helped elect the Republican majority. But ignorance about the Contract and the misleading way it has been promoted have also contributed to public silence.

From day one, I thought that the Contract with America was a suspect document, a Trojan horse filled with far right fringe politics. But many said, let's give the Republicans a chance.

Instead of a campaign gimmick, the Contract turned out to be a dangerous weapon. The right-wing revolutionaries used the Contract to camouflage their attacks on the environment (as well as against the young, the old, the poor, the middle class and other targets).

To construe the 1994 Republic victory as a mandate for the Contract is a demagogic joke. During last year's election, when the Contract was hatched, barely 50 percent of the U.S. electorate voted. The Republican "landslide" was achieved through the support of only about 30 percent of eligible voters. And very few had any idea what the Contract stood for. There was no mandate for attacking 25 years of legislative and regulatory progress protecting the environment.

Targets, Battle lines

Let's look at what Newt's revolutionaries have in store for the environment:

Water Quality-Both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act are under attack as part of Republican-led efforts to eliminate Federal mandates. While most Americans support mandates which favor public health, compliance with the requirements of these water protection laws may be undermined by "waivers" and a shift toward "voluntary controls."

The Clean Water Act programs to control sewage overflows are slated for suspension. The EPA's water quality monitoring program may also be eliminated.

The "clean water" bill passed by the House would also eliminate the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative, designed to create uniform programs to reduce, prevent and control toxic pollution in states which border the Great Lakes.

Air Quality-Key elements of the Clean Air Act are threatened by Republican efforts to undermine EPA enforcement abilities and to provide pollution exemptions. Even seemingly innocuous programs are in the line of fire. For example, the House voted to prohibit states from including in their clean air plans any strategies to reduce car use by encouraging carpooling, public transit, etc.

Endangered Species-While our planet is losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, the Endangered Species Act has become the lightning rod for Congressional opponents of current environmental laws and regulations. New listings on the endangered species list have been barred. Legislation now under consideration would favor commercial development of land over species protection.

While it might seem reasonable to compensate land owners when species protection thwarts development and affects property values, the compensation requirement in the pending legislation would severely curtail government-directed action in behalf of threatened or endangered species. Private property rights should not be allowed to supersede community or public interest.

Wetlands-The protection of wetlands is likely to suffer as a result of an easing of restrictions and a requirement for compensation similar to that proposed for the Endangered Species Act.

Leading the charge against wetlands protection is Senator D.M. Faircloth (R-NC), who, according to Rollcall, has an estimated $19 million invested in the pork industry. His Wetlands Regulatory Reform Act would substantially relax standards on water pollution from large scale hog farms and other factory livestock operations.

Hazardous Chemicals-Funding for Superfund cleanup of toxic chemical waste dumps is slated for significant cuts, as is EPA's Superfund enforcement budget. The latter cut would eliminate much of EPA's ability to identify responsible parties and initiate new cleanups.

While consumers overwhelmingly want public health regulations which limit pesticide contamination of food, proposed legislation favors pesticide manufacturers who want regulation of their products relaxed.

National Forests-Efforts to turn America's National Forests, including irreplaceable old growth forests, into saw logs and pulp for paper, took a giant step toward the environmental abyss when the Republican majority in Congress approved a two-year program to promote the cutting of so-called "salvage timber." The salvage timber program suspends all existing environmental laws affecting logging, including the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Clinton had opposed this measure but succumbed to pressure to approve the appropriation bill which contained it as a "rider."

National Parks and Wilderness-Funds to operate national parks and to acquire new park land and wilderness appear likely to suffer major cuts. And the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a huge, pristine wilderness area in northern Alaska, is on the chopping block. Anti-environmentalists are seeking to open it up to oil and gas development-even though a slight increase in automotive fuel efficiency could save more energy than is likely to be found in this wilderness refuge.

Energy-On a per capita basis, Americans consume twice as much energy as Germans and three times as much as the Japanese. Despite the significant environmental impact associated with our continued over-reliance on conventional energy sources (fossil fuels and nuclear power), the Department of Energy's modest budgets for energy efficiency and renewable or solar energy development are slated for disproportionately large cuts.

Isolationism Won't Work on a Shrinking Planet

International environmental programs are also being targeted. Legislation passed by the House would enact major cuts in U.S. global population stabilization efforts. Funding cuts are also likely to affect U.S. participation in international efforts such as the Inter-government Panel on Climate Change (which evaluates scientific research on global warming) and the Montreal Protocol Fund (which helps control CFCs in order to protect the ozone layer).

Human population was at the 3.5 billion mark when I began teaching environmental studies at UB in the mid-'70s. Now, only 20 years later, human population has reached 5.7 billion. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that, as a species, we can't keep growing like this-without terrible environmental, economic, social and political consequences.

The habitability of the Earth itself is fast becoming an issue. Population growth must be addressed. The same can be said for addressing potentially devastating problems like global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.

Budgetary Truths and Tricks

What about the budget? Do budget realities force major cuts in environmental programs?

We do have a budget problem. A recent Associated Press story stated that on Friday, Sept. 22, the national debt totaled $4,859,555,000,000 and was increasing at over $500 million a day.

Luckily, a consensus has emerged to address this problem. Reducing the deficit and balancing the budget are obvious first steps.

At the heart of the current debate is how to achieve a balanced budget. Given the size of the deficit, it is reasonable to suppose that some federal programs must be eliminated and many will have to be scaled back. Since most government programs contain fat or wasteful spending, they can benefit by efficiencies forced by budget cuts. But this logic does not lead to the conclusion that all programs must suffer cuts or that social and environmental programs should be cut the most.

Gingrich's revolutionaries are going after environmental programs because they oppose these programs, not because of the need to balance the budget.

Tax Cuts Force Deeper Cuts in Select Programs

The Republican-sponsored tax cut has been criticized for providing more tax relief to the rich than to the middle class and poor. But this tax cut is more than that; it's a carefully crafted tool designed to exacerbate the budget crisis, forcing even more draconian cuts in programs Republicans oppose. The tax cut will have the effect of:

1. directly transferring wealth to the wealthy by taxing them less; and

2. indirectly transferring wealth to the wealthy by increasing corporate profits for regulated industries by deregulating them, i.e., allowing them to operate without environmental controls.

Recent Republican efforts to increase spending for the Department of Defense (DoD) by $6-7 billion over the amount requested by the Pentagon is of the same cloth. While Republicans generally favor higher levels of military spending, they undoubtedly hope that further increases in the Pentagon's budget will force even deeper cuts in other areas, including Medicare, welfare and environmental programs.

Dumping more money into the DoD will also result in more profits for large weapons-making corporations. Welfare for big business is in. Welfare for the poor is not.

A Wolf at the Door

If the Contract with America is a wolf in sheep's clothing, then what do we do when the wolf's at the door?

If you are among the majority in this country who care about maintaining government protection of the environment, please don't sit on the sidelines.

It's time to pick up the phone, or pen and paper, or a picket sign and let your Congressional representative (Jack Quinn, Bill Paxon or John LaFalce) and Senators Daniel Moynihan and Alfonse D'Amato know where you stand. Legislation that could change the course of environmental history is now being deliberated in Congress.

Paxon, Quinn and D'Amato have generally supported the Contract with America and its radical anti-environmentalism. Paxon, in particular, has championed the Contract with great enthusiasm. All of the above characters have local offices listed in the blue pages ("government listings") of the phone book.

Partners in Crime?

What about President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore? They definitely need a wake up call. But it goes deeper than that.

The Clinton Administration has done little to stop the attack of the Republicans, suggesting that this issue is not as partisan as it may appear. The deluge of campaign contributions from corporate special interests have polluted both parties and created "government for sale." This condition will not change until there is significant campaign finance reform.

While demanding this reform is essential (if we want to return democracy and public interest to government), we also need to hope for the best and encourage Clinton to publicly take on the environmental issue and veto bad bills. Perhaps if the public shouts loudly enough, Clinton will discover some latent concern for the environment and begin resisting the Republican onslaught.

As for Gore, he needs to reappear and resume his passionate championing of the environmental cause. In his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore called for "bold and unequivocal action" on behalf of our kids and the next generation. Now is the time.

Walter Simpson is UB's energy officer

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