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Enviro Groups Fear Republican Congress

by Cat Lazaroff

Environment, Animal Rights Big Winners In 2002 Vote
(ENS) WASHINGTON -- With the 2002 elections leaving both the House and the Senate in Republican hands, control of crucial environmental committees will also rest with the GOP, along with the power to dictate the flow of environmental legislation through Congress.

According to the Sierra Club, the upcoming session of Congress is likely to feature attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act, accelerate logging in national forests, create additional tax breaks for energy companies, and open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public lands to oil development.

"The good news is that never before have so many people been elected to Congress claiming to care about the air, the water and the land," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "The bad news is that so many of them didn't mean it."

"There is no doubt a cocky White House and their gloating allies in Congress are going to use their inflated muscle to try to open up public forests to industrial strength logging," said Brian Vincent, California organizer for American Lands. "Their mid-term gains could mean political Armaggeddon for national forests."

For example, incoming Republican Senators John Sununu of New Hampshire, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia both voted in favor of Arctic drilling as members of the House in 2001. Sununu helped draft the Arctic refuge drilling language that survived in the House version of an energy bill that could be debated later this year and into the spring.

"I think we'll see the Republican leadership bring its agenda out of the back room and onto Capitol Hill," said the Sierra Club's Pope. "I think it's going to be a more visible battlefield."

The margins of majority leadership in both houses are too close to give the Republicans an easy path to force through the Bush agenda, however. In the Senate, for example, the Republicans are still well short of the 60 votes needed to end a Democratic filibuster, giving the Democrats at least one political tool to thwart the passage of controversial legislation.

But the Democrats have lost their most important leverage in Congress -- control of Senate committees. When the newly elected Senators take office in January, new chairs will be selected for every Senate committee by the Republican majority.

The committee chairs control the introduction of legislation, debate of new bills, the timing of votes and the forwarding of bills to the full Senate. The Democrats have held these spots since May 2001, when Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords changed his party allegiance from Republican to Independent, handing Senate Democrats a slim, one vote majority.

"While the environment enjoys bipartisan support, leadership at committees is likely to shift to people who are more hostile to environmental protections," said Alys Campaigne, legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Largely through strategic use of Senate committee powers, the Democrats have since blocked passage of a variety of Bush administration measures, including plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and proposals to eliminate most environmental oversight of national forest fire prevention projects.

But all that is about to change, perhaps as early as next week, when Congress returns from its fall hiatus. Under Missouri law, just elected Senator Jim Talent, a Republican, can be sworn in immediately, replacing Democrat Jean Carnahan who was chosen in a special election to complete the term of her late husband, former governor Mel Carnahan.

That would give Republicans control of the Senate for the remainder of the lame duck session, in which the majority of the crucial spending bills for fiscal year 2003 must still be debated and passed.

New chairs for both House and Senate committees have not yet been selected, though in many cases, the current senior Republican in each committee will be named as chair.

In some cases, however, the current senior Republican will be leaving office. For example, Senator Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, would seem the natural candidate to replace New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a powerful body considered key to President George W. Bush's proposals to open more public lands -- including wildlife refuges, national forests and national monuments -- to energy exploration.

But Senator Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska -- putting him in the position of appointing his own successor in the Senate. Though Murkowski told reporters after his win on Tuesday that he had not yet settled on who the new Senate appointee will be, it is expected to be a Republican who favors opening the north slope of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Many of the Republican gains in the House were prefaced by redistricting after the 2000 census.

Once every 10 years, nationwide census results are used to determine where population growth requires the creation of new Congressional districts, and areas where declining populations will lose House seats. In the past decade, most growth has occurred in Republican strongholds in the south and western states, giving the Republicans the chance to add several seats.

In four cases, redistricting pitted incumbent House members against each other for possession of a single seat. Republicans won three of those races, and also took seats away from two Democratic incumbents in unchanged districts.

Although state and federal lawmakers worked to protect incumbent Congress members when new districts were drawn, in Maryland, a redrawn district may have doomed eight term Congresswoman Connie Morella, a Republican in heavily Democratic Montgomery county. Morella lost last night to Democrat Chris Van Hollen, in a race considered one of a very few bright spots for both Democrats and environmental voters.

But Van Hollen will serve in a House where his pro-environment views, endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters and a variety of conservation groups, may find little voice. The Republican controlled Congress is expected to move rapidly to advance President Bush's agenda, including loosening environmental restrictions on industry, corporations and the military.

Also on the Bush wish list are tax cuts for businesses and investors, a repeal of the estate tax, and increased military spending. The administration has also proposed new restrictions on citizen lawsuits that could make it more difficult to challenge controversial federal actions like the diversion of scare water resources from wildlife to agriculture.

The loss of Senate control will also make it more difficult for Democrats to pursue investigations of Bush administration actions like the creation of the national energy plan. Critics charge that energy industry representatives provided too much input into the plan, while environmental interests were largely shut out of the planning process.

The result is a plan which critics say could prove damaging to the health of public lands, clean air and clean water. Investigations launched by the Senate have forced the disclosure of some, but not all, of the Bush administration's records of its energy planning process, and similar investigations of other controversial administration decisions are now underway.

Without control of the Senate, the Democrats will find it much harder to examine the administration's plans to overhaul some of the nation's most important environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

A less visible, but no less critical area where the influence of Republican power will be felt will be in the approval of Bush administration appointments to federal courts.

The Democratically controlled Senate had moved to block the most conservative of White House nominees to the federal bench, but most judicial appointments are likely to sail right through with the Senate in Republican hands, warned NRDC's Campaigne.

"There are now two vacancies at the DC Circuit Court, which holds almost unique jurisdiction over environmental issues," Campaigne said, explaining that the Washington DC court hears nearly all cases where federal authority is involved, such as those concerning the powers of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers.

"Shifting some of those spots to anti-environmental judges would have a dramatic impact for years to come," she added.

"The Republican Congressional leadership will probably come out of the gate fast in January," said Sierra Club conservation director Bruce Hamilton. "They'll want to make anti-environmental moves early in the next session of Congress, not close to the 2004 election, because they know those moves aren't popular with the public."

Pope agreed, noting that the election did not signal a change in what voters want.

"The American people did not vote to drill in the Arctic, to cut down our national forests, or to weaken our clean air and clean water laws," Pope said. "If Congress thinks so, they're in for a rude shock."

"The Republican leadership feels it now has a mandate, but if recent history is any guide, those who believe they have a mandate usually proceed to squander it," added Pope.

© 2002 Environment News Service and reprinted with permission

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Albion Monitor November 7 2002 (

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