Geotimes Logo POLITICAL SCENE September 1996

Reauthorization of Environmental Legislation Stalls

When the 104th Congress convened in January 1995, Republicans controlled both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. The new majority moved out quickly on its campaign promise to make government smaller, more accountable, and less intrusive.
Congress passed, and the President signed, the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995, requiring that major new federal regulatory laws come with funds for state and local governments to pay for compliance. Because environmental laws were perceived as particularly burdensome, Congress showed its displeasure right away by rescinding $600 million of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget. That same bill "defunded" listing of additional endangered species and blocked EPA enforcement of a Clean Air Act provision requiring centralized vehicle inspections.
This wave of actions came at a time when many major environmental statutes were due -- or overdue -- for reauthorization. Democrats in the previous two Congresses had tried to pass changes to the Clean Water Act and Superfund law but failed due to disagreements between the House and Senate. The new Congress promised to be different, and to prove it the House of Representatives quickly passed a major overhaul of the Clean Water Act along with comprehensive regulatory reform legislation. House committees went to work on revising the Clean Air Act, Superfund, Endangered Species Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.
Despite all the high expectations, however, the 104th Congress has passed only two environmental statutes and is unlikely to send any additional bills to the President before it adjourns for good next month. The refusal to compromise that killed reform efforts in the previous two Congresses was at work again -- "environmental gridlock" has continued.
What slowed the House juggernaut? First, the Senate only considered a few of the bills coming over from the House, and instead tried to develop compromise language that would survive a minority-led filibuster. Second, a group of moderate House Republicans led by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) broke with the leadership on a number of key environmental issues. The group sided with the minority in opposing a one-third cut in EPA's fiscal year 1996 appropriation and successfully blocked passage of the Interior and Related Agencies appropriations bill over language that would end the existing moratorium on mining patents. Third, by the late summer and early fall of 1995, the budget process took center stage and brought progress on other legislation to a grinding halt -- legislation that included reauthorization of key environmental statutes. Where do those efforts stand today?

Clean Water Act
This act was first passed in 1972 to regulate the discharge of pollutants into U.S. surface waters. Many of its provisions have expired since it was last reauthorized in 1987. The House passed its revision (H.R. 961) last year, but the Senate never took it up. The House bill proved controversial because it redefined wetlands and the protections provided for them. Wetlands reform was the sole focus of S. 851, introduced by Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C). Opposition from Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Chafee (R-R.I.) limited action on the bill to a series of hearings.

Clean Air Act
Rather than overhaul the entire Clean Air Act, which was last amended in 1990, critics of this legislation tried to address specific grievances. Nearly 30 bills were introduced in the House and Senate. Only one (H.R. 325) has been signed by the President. This bill makes voluntary a program to reduce emissions in areas where ozone nonattainment is rated severe by cutting the number of work-related vehicle trips.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (better known as the Superfund law) established broad authority to clean up sites contaminated by a hazardous substance. Reforming Superfund was a high priority of this Congress, but despite a nearly universal concern over the current legislation, lawmakers proved unable to deal with the complexities of the statute. Neither the House nor the Senate scheduled even a committee vote on the two principal bills, H.R. 2500 and S. 1285.

Endangered Species Act
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was the somewhat unlikely culprit in slowing down progress on a bill to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act. His opposition to H.R. 2275, introduced by Resources Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), led moderate Republicans to seek a compromise bill, but those efforts have been abandoned in the face of election-year politics. Efforts to move a bill in the Senate were derailed when sponsor Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) admitted that industry lobbyists had written large parts of it.

The National Biological Service (NBS) became a target for opponenets of the Endangered Species Act. The agency was created in 1993 by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to separate science from the regulatory responsibilities of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Concern over property rights and the search for endangered species on private property led to the elimination of the NBS but not of its functions, which will become part of the U.S. Geological Survey on Oct. 1.

Safe Drinking Water Act
The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 protects the nation's underground sources of drinking water by regulating municipal drinking water systems and injection wells. An exception to the rule of environmental gridlock, this reauthorization effort has enjoyed broad bipartisan support. The Senate version (S. 1316) passed unanimously last November. The House originally considered a major overall of the act, but after the Administration applauded the Senate measure, it instead passed a bipartisan bill (H.R. 3604) that earned even higher marks from the White House. Representatives from the two bodies hammered out their differences in conference in late July and sent an acceptable bill to the President.

Pesticide Regulation
One other success story is H.R. 1627, the Food Quality Protection Act, which was signed into law last month after passing both houses by unanimous votes. The new law makes changes to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the two major statutes regulating pesticides.

Both the drinking water and food quality bills owe their success to broad, bipartisan support in both chambers and the lack of Administration opposition. The complexity of the congressional system combined with the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches demand compromise on both sides of any issue.

Although it only takes a simple majority of votes to pass legislation in the House of Representatives, it takes a supermajority of 60 in the Senate to overcome a determined opposition. Both bodies must muster two-thirds of their membership to override a presidential veto. For over 30 years, voters have been unwilling to give either party the supermajorities needed to push through a legislative agenda unimpeded. With voters unlikely to deliver such a mandate in the November elections, compromise will be the only alternative to the status quo.
David Applegate
Director of Government Affairs
American Geological Institute

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