Washington: Natural Lite

Fearing environmentalists, Newt Gingrich is pushing both bad policy and bad politics.


The congressional Republicans' environmental reform agenda has vanished. In 1995, bills that would have set a moratorium on new federal regulations, compensated property owners when endangered-species or wetlands proceedings reduced the value of their land, and required new regulations to undergo cost-benefit analyses passed the House by near veto-proof margins. It now looks, however, as if the major environmental "accomplishment" of the 104th Congress will be a slightly modified reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Republican property rights advocates blame Bill Clinton for slowing environmental reforms, citing such opposition as the president's promise to veto any bills that would compensate landowners when endangered species are discovered on their property. But the political initiative for new environmental rules has actually been shelved at the insistence of the GOP's chief "revolutionary"–House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Convinced that the public believes Republicans are too extreme, Gingrich has appointed a 70-member House Republican Task Force on the Environment that must approve the language of any environmental bills that go to the House floor. As co-chairman of the task force the speaker named New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, the only Republican to vote against all three regulatory/environmental reform items in the Contract with America.

The 13-member "steering committee," which does most of the task force's heavy lifting, includes a strange brew of solid property rights advocates–Reps. Mike Crapo (Idaho), Barbara Cubin (Wyo.), Billy Tauzin (La.), and co-chair Richard Pombo (Calif.)– along with Boehlert and some of the greenest Republicans–Porter Goss (Fla.), Jim Saxton (N.J.), and Vernon Ehlers (Mich.). Indeed, the speaker made room for plenty of Republicans who are openly hostile to the party's reform agenda–14 of the 23 Republican House members who voted against last year's takings-compensation bill found their way on the task force.

Any environmental bill that emerges from the task force must be a "consensus document," letting green members veto any contentious provisions. Deputy Majority Whip Tauzin says, "The task force has enlightened [Republicans] on our problems more than anything else. At least the folks in our [Republican] conference are [no longer] working with the other side to defeat us." But bills that glided through House committees last year can't get through the task force.

The speaker formed the task force soon after a group of moderate Republicans, led by Boehlert, refused to support a regulatory-reform bill in March. Senate Democrats were able to successfully filibuster a bill the House had passed by a 286-141 margin last year, so House Republicans drafted a different version. The 1996 bill included a new sunset provision that would require Congress to reauthorize all "major" regulations (those which have an impact of more than $100 million) every five to nine years. Boehlert said, "This bill is like throwing out a whole bushel of apples just because one goes bad," and claimed that he could peel off enough Republicans to defeat the bill. Gingrich then removed it from consideration and created his task force.

Gingrich has said the task force "is working to develop a new approach and a new synthesis on the environment." But grassroots property rights supporters and the policy advocates who give them intellectual ammunition say the speaker wants to derail substantive reforms. Before the task force was formed, the House Resources Committee had passed an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act authored by Pombo and committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska. The Young-Pombo bill would require the federal government to compensate property owners if the discovery of an endangered species on private land caused the property's value to go down. In a May interview with the environmental news service Greenwire, Gingrich said he wouldn't let the Young-Pombo bill go to the House floor for a vote. He did, however, speak favorably of alternative proposals suggested by Saxton, which would strengthen the government's regulatory control over private property.

Property rights and other market-based environmentalists believe Gingrich doesn't understand them or their concerns. Peggy Riegle, chairman of the Fairness to Land Owners Committee, a group that represents more than 10,000 "mom and pop" property owners, says her members are so frustrated that they "need Newt out of the speakership–even if it means losing his seat" to a Democrat this fall.

The speaker's actions justify some of these worries. Gingrich continues to support the National Biological Survey, an attempt to catalog and count every species in the United States. Taking an inventory of the nation's flora and fauna would certainly have scientific value. But property rights advocates are justifiably leery of enhancing the ability of government regulators to locate threatened species on private land. "If I have a rare metal on my property, its value goes up," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official Sam Hamilton has said. "But if a rare bird occupies the land, its value disappears." Concerns from landowners groups prevented the NBS bill from coming to a vote in the 103rd Congress.

Gingrich also champions the creation of a National Institute on the Environment, a new "independent" federal agency to finance green research. And the apocalyptic (albeit distinguished) Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has been cited as his chief outside environmental adviser. Gingrich has entertained Wilson, the Environmental Defense Fund's Michael Bean, and biologist Thomas Lovejoy–Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's choice to head the National Biological Survey–as occasional dinner guests.

By contrast, property rights advocates have a hard time getting the speaker's ear. During the "Fly In for Freedom," a June convention for farmers, ranchers, and property rights advocates in Washington, a number of local activists and policy analysts tried to get an appointment with the speaker. Gingrich did address the convention but refused to meet with anyone privately. Nor would his senior political and policy staff members meet with organizers, who were shunted to his environmental staffer. Gingrich has also refused to privately discuss environmental issues with Dean Kleckner, president of the influential American Farm Bureau Federation.

Even though the speaker continually rhapsodizes about decentralism and "Third Wave" forms of flexible governance, his environmental vision is little more than top-down technocracy. Gingrich constantly invokes the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, whose Progressive-era conservation ethic entailed little more than buying huge chunks of private land with tax dollars and placing them under bureaucratic management.

Western ecosystems have not prospered as a consequence of federal control. The feds "built the most inefficient and costly fire-fighting force on the face of the earth–that of the Forest Service," notes environmental writer Karl Hess Jr. "Dams destroyed the legendary salmon runs of the past and turned the mighty Columbia, Colorado, Missouri, and Rio Grande rivers into shining examples of federal regulation and control." (See "Storm Over the Rockies," June 1995.)

The contradictions between Newt's bottom-up and top-down inclinations become apparent any time he talks at length on environmental issues. In an April speech before the National Environmental Policy Institute, he said, "We need to look at incentives for saving species and incentives for biodiversity…as opposed to a command and control model of punishing people, fining people, regulating people, and threatening people with jail, which I think, in a free society…in the long run [is] not as effective a way to change behavior as incentives." Yet three paragraphs later, he declared, "We [the federal government] have every right to say to a community, 'Yes, you are going to save the species.'"

Nor does the speaker truly advocate decentralized decision making. Again in the NEPI speech he said, "It is totally appropriate for the federal government to say, 'Here is the standard we want you to attain.' It is destructive for the federal government to then dictate an outmoded, bureaucratic model of attaining that standard." True decentralism would, however, allow individuals and neighborhoods to decide how much environmental protection they are willing to pay for and set appropriate standards. Rural Montana doesn't have the same air-quality problems as downtown Baltimore. Why should federal regulators require residents of both places to meet the same standards? (See "Evolutionary Ecology," May.)

Gingrich believes his environmental vision is a political winner, and cites survey results from GOP pollster Linda DiVall to back it up. DiVall found that 55 percent of the Republicans she queried did not trust their party to take care of the environment, compared with 72 percent of Democrats who were comfortable with their party's environmental positions.

Property rights advocates have several responses. First, argues Myron Ebell, national policy director for the Frontiers of Freedom Institute, Gingrich is making a political blunder by publicly paying so much attention to green concerns. Few voters cast their ballots based solely on a candidate's environmental stands. Taxes, crime, the deficit, education, and gun control consistently outscore the environment on lists of voter priorities. "If the public thinks your party is on the wrong side of an issue," asks Ebell, "but the issue is 23rd on their agenda, what don't you do? Elevate the issue."

And there are geographic factors to consider. Land-use issues resonate much more with Western voters than with those in the East. A number of Western House freshmen won by razor-thin margins in 1994. For them, the support of property rights advocates may have secured their victories. In the East, by contrast, moderate Republicans have fairly safe seats. They're winning on a host of issues, not just because of their green votes.

And DiVall numbers oversimplify the situation. A July survey sponsored by The Polling Company for the Competitive Enterprise Institute asked voters their preferences for regulating endangered species on private property. Only 11 percent preferred the current practice of restricting land use without compensation. One-third supported some mixture of regulation and compensation. But 49 percent would "do away with government regulation entirely and instead have the government offer incentives to keep endangered species on their property."

As Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the June 1 National Journal, "If one ever lets the Republicans convince voters that either the Democrats or the environmental groups are anti-private property, then I think it could be a very dangerous issue."

Many policy analysts compare today's perceptions about market-based environmentalism to the welfare debate a decade ago. Back then conservatives and libertarians opposed welfare because it is wasteful or because they believe coercively redistributing income is wrong. Those arguments fell mostly on deaf ears. But anecdotal evidence and solid academic research have shown that welfare hurts people on public assistance–leading to dependency, high rates of illegitimacy, and an entrenched underclass. It's now possible to advocate ending welfare and still be perceived as a friend of the poor.

Lynn Scarlett, the Reason Foundation's vice president for research, has been working with conservationists, free market analysts, and advocates of traditional regulation to develop and promote a new approach to environmentalism–one that appreciates the different values individuals place on environmental protection and that emphasizes true decentralism and market incentives. Scarlett says that Boehlert and the pro-regulatory crowd, much like the welfare-state advocates of 10 years ago, are wedded to existing federal regulations. Boehlert and other GOP enviros, she says, "equate passing a law, say, the Clean Water Act, with protecting the environment. [To them], any attempt to dismantle current regulations dismantles environmental protection."

Advocates of market-based environmentalism must demonstrate that protecting private property, encouraging stewardship, and using incentives and flexible alternatives to regulation actually improve environmental quality. "We must sever the link between the edifice of the regulatory state and the goal of environmental protection," says Scarlett.

Of course, Gingrich's immediate concern is building on the slender 35-seat majority the Republicans hold in Congress. But would a "natural lite" agenda accomplish that? Several prominent House property rights advocates–Helen Chenoweth (Idaho), J.D. Hayworth (Ariz.), Frank Riggs (Calif.), and Doc Hastings (Wash.)–are in closer-than- expected re-election campaigns. The absence of endangered-species and other environmental reforms doesn't please the folks back home. "These folks don't have anything to take home to their constituents," laments Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association. "Newt acts like he's running for minority leader." It is possible that any Republican gains in the South will be matched by losses in the West–and that suburban Southern freshmen will be less persistent about environmental reforms than their rural Western predecessors.

And if Gingrich hoped the task force would generate a stream of consensus reforms, he's got to be disappointed. Congress did streamline regulations by passing a new Safe Drinking Water Act, revising rules on fishing for "dolphin-safe" tuna, and overhauling the Delaney Clause, which governs the levels of cancer-causing substances allowed in food.

But reauthorization of the massive Superfund program won't happen this year. Nor will a new Endangered Species Act or the property rights and regulatory reforms promised in the Contract with America. And because greens on the task force can veto any major changes in policy, Riegle says she would be happy if nothing further comes to the floor this year. "Anything that would pass [the task force] would be so watered down it would do no good," she says.

Without saying so openly, the task force members most sympathetic to market-oriented reforms suggest that only outside pressure will get the reform agenda back on track. Pombo staffer Mike Hartiman says his boss will push for takings compensation next year. Tauzin, who championed takings bills as a Democrat before switching parties last year, says, "Those people who believe that individuals should be compensated [for takings of private property] should make that a central issue in this campaign. If their candidates [for Congress] won't support these issues, then find ones who will."

The task force may stifle any substantive environmental reforms this Congress. But will it continue to command the legislative agenda next year? "Absolutely," says Boehlert Press Secretary Siobhan Dugan. "It's the speaker's call," says Hartiman of Pombo's staff. If Republicans retain control of Congress, how Gingrich answers that question will determine whether the speaker really is a revolutionary or if instead he prefers to carry water for the environmental establishment.

Rick Henderson (DCReason@aol.com) is Washington editor of REASON.