A Paler Shade of Green

A Paler Shade of Green

October 31, 1998

In 1994, the nation sent a new breed of lawmakers to Washington, giving Republicans control of both Houses of Congress for the first time in decades. This new breed was determined to change the way lawmakers think and govern. At the end of this attempted "revolution," I took a job working for House member Sam Brownback (R-KS), who would shortly gain election to the Senate. On Capitol Hill I found a very different mood than the one that prevailed just months earlier.

Republicans took hard political hits on environmental issues. Having failed to capture the moral high ground and enact reform measures, they decided to retreat. Yet my new boss believed that his free-market philosophy could serve a pro-environmental agenda, a view that led him to push the House Budget Committee to adopt a series of environmental principles that the Competitive Enterprise Institute helped draft into the House Budget Resolution. Frustrated with his party’s strategic failure on environmental issues, he hired me to help rethink his strategy and develop a stronger, principled, free-market environmental message. But Brownback was nearly alone in his resolve.

Early in the 105th Congress, it became clear that retreat led to enemy capture. The new majority was no longer interested in offering new ideas. They began to model their "new" initiatives after Clinton Administration initiatives. The result was a series of proposals that failed to address fundamental problems with current environmental laws; rather, they attempted to fix them with yet more government. The Republican Congress even funded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at record levels.

The Senate Republicans began with Senator Bob Smith’s (R-NH) bill to reform the nation’s hazardous waste cleanup law. Superfund reform was placed on the Majority Leader’s "Top 10" list of legislative priorities. Sen. Smith’s "Superfund Acceleration Act of 1998 (S. 8) shares the fundamental goals of the [Clinton] Administration’s reforms and builds upon those reforms," according to the committee report. The bill focused on using new big-government programs to address the law’s current failings.

For example, Superfund’s liability scheme basically holds anyone remotely related to a Superfund site potentially liable for millions of dollars in cleanup costs. Thousands of former industrial sites (commonly called brownfields) sit idle because of such potential liability. Making Superfund’s liability scheme more just would eliminate the brownfield problem. Instead, the Smith bill expanded the Clinton Administration’s brownfields program, which simply provides for additional federal funds to clean up a few select sites, while the vast majority continue to sit idle.

Then there was Senator Dirk Kempthorne’s Endangered Species Act (ESA) "reform." As written, the ESA penalizes property owners by regulating their rights to use their own property when it contains actual or potential habitat for endangered species. As a result, landowners are encouraged to destroy species habitat.

But again, rather than fixing the law, the Senate bill adopted and expanded another Clinton Administration initiative – habitat conservation planning. In theory, a habitat conservation plan (HCP) is supposed to give property owners some rights to use their land, if they engage in activities to enhance species habitat. But most property owners simply don’t have the land to spare or the money necessary to hire expensive environmental consultants and attorneys to develop plans. We end up with more intensive land use regulation and the same perverse incentives. It is no wonder that the Kempthorne bill was opposed by property rights groups, the American Farm Bureau, and many others. It won’t work for landowners or species.

While Superfund and ESA "reform" represent the two most significant environmental bills of the Congress, many more followed the same faulty logic. The Tropical Forest Protection Act passed into law, creating a program to forgive debt in developing nations to divert some of the money to left-wing environmental groups overseas. There also were various government pork and parks bills that simply expand government control – and the mismanagement that goes with it – over our National Parks and Federal Lands.

Republicans also offered several bills banning trade in products produced from wildlife. The Bear Protection Act, for example, would ban trade in bear "viscera" because demand in China for their use in traditional Chinese medicine is supposedly going to make the bears extinct in the United States. In addition to the fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service testified that this proposal was unnecessary, the bill flies in the face of what we’ve found is the best way to protect species – using their market value to foster stewardship. We’ve learned that the African Elephant flourishes when local communities benefit from tourism and trophy hunting, and they suffer when bans increase prices for Ivory tusks, create black markets, and subsequent poaching. Bears are not likely to be any different.

But how do members capture the high moral ground on environmental issues? They need to start learning the true meaning of free-market environmentalism. That doesn’t mean they must start hacking away at EPA’s enforcement budget as they did in the 104th Congress. After all, we need to fix faulty laws rather than enforce them selectively or haphazardly.

Politicians may respond that it’s easier said than done. But there are some principled opportunities where lawmakers could start. For example, my former boss Senator Brownback is preparing legislation to repeal the federal sugar program, which is damaging the Florida Everglades. Other opportunities include making minor changes to the Clean Water Act to make it easier for private parties to voluntarily clean up abandoned mine sites. And absent legitimate Superfund reform, which would turn most, if not all, cleanup responsibilities over to the states, members should consider a brownfields bill that simply provides liability relief to innocent parties that cleanup abandoned industrial sites.

In the end, free-market advocates can forget about getting full-fledged support from the League of Conservation Voters. Those groups rarely score Republican initiatives, even when Republicans offer big-government programs. Free-market lawmakers need to start making the right arguments, promoting the right ideas, and implementing them where possible – even if it’s on a smaller-than-desired scale. Most of all, they need to recognize that there’s nothing gained from becoming Clinton-Gore environmental clones.

Angela Logomasini (alogomasini @cei.org) joined CEI in October as Director of Risk and Environmental Policy.