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Greens Outgunned by Mark Dowie

<-- Back to Environmentalism in the 21st Century

Source: PacificSites

Greens Outgunned

by Mark Dowie

Lobbying Washington for a better environment has become an almost futile endeavor. If the 103rd Congress (1992-94) did not prove the point to the environmental movement's leadership, the 104th surely will. When did national environmentalists ever have it better than with the 103rd Congress - with a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate and, if campaign rhetoric was to be believed, the most environmentally committed administration in recent history? Yet in two years, only one piece of environmental legislation was signed into law - a weak and severely compromised bill protecting part of the California desert - while the administration that had greens staining the inaugural ballroom floor with tears of joy broke all records in environmental betrayal. It was enough to depress the most hardened veteran of Beltway politics.

In terms of talent, experience and resources, the environmental lobby has never been stronger. Numbering more than 100 seasoned advocates, representing scores of organizations and millions of voters, they are pound-for-pound the most impressive lobby on the Hill. But pounds do not count in Washington; dollars do. And in dollars, almost any way you measure it, greens are outgunned ten-or-more-to-one by any lobby they face.

"When I visit a congressional representative on a toxics issue, I can offer him or her $10,000 max; five for the primary, five for the general election," laments Sierra Club lobbyist Dan Becker, one of the few national environmentalists with a Political Action Committee (PAC) behind him. "The next visitor could easily be representing the Chemical Manufacturers Association - over a hundred corporate members, each of which has a PAC that can offer $10,000 to the next campaign. Even with the facts on my side I am likely to be ignored."

Becker does not even mention the fact that each of those chemical manufacturers has at least one law or lobbying firm in Washington able to contribute additional support to the same candidate.

From January 1991 to June 1994 - covering the pre-election period and one-and-a-half sessions of the 103rd Congress - the entire environmental movement, through its 14 existing PACs, contributed $1.7 million to congressional candidates, including roughly $500,000 for the 1994 elections. During the same period, chemical industry PACs donated $3.8 million to federal candidates; agriculture PACs $22.7 million; energy and natural resources PACs $21.7 million; transportation (including automotive), $20.9 million; construction, $7.8 million; timber, $2.3 million; mining, $1.9 million; and the waste management industry, $1.4 million.

The consequences of all this corporate generosity showed in the sad fate of environmental legislation during the first two years of the Clinton-Gore administration. A few examples include (all figures are for the period 1/91 through 6/94, except where noted):

Attempts to overhaul the General Mining Law of 1872 faltered in conference committee after the House passed its bill 316 to 108 and the Senate passed its own on a non-record vote. A leading opponent to mining reform was the American Mining Congress, which represents the mining industry, whose PAC contributions totaled $1.9 million.

Hearings were conducted in both chambers on the renewal of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, but no bills were marked up by either side. The American Forest and Paper Association helped influence the outcome. Timber and forest products' PAC donations came to $2.3 million.

The House, but not the Senate, approved legislation giving state and local governments more power, under interstate commerce laws, to reject municipal waste imports from other states. The National Solid Waste Management Association was a major lobbying force, bolstered by waste management industry PAC contributions of $1.4 million.

Gridlock in both chambers killed bids to revamp the federal law regulating the pesticide content of fresh and processed foods (the "Delaney clause"). PAC contributions from a major opponent to strict regulations, the chemical industry, came to $3.8 million. The Environmental Working Group studied a sub-sector of the industry - the 43 PACs associated with companies that form the American Crop Protection Association and ACPA's own PAC - and found it was especially active, together contributing $3.1 million. Pesticide corporation PAC contributions during the first 18 months of the 103rd Congress were double what they had been during the same period in the previous two Congresses.

Both chambers passed bills to renew the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, giving state and local governments more leeway and resources to meet EPA contamination standards, but final government approval was not achieved. The bill was stymied at the last minute by a group called the Safe Drinking Water Act Coalition. The coalition was comprised of state and local officials' organizations, such as the National Governors Association, the utility groups, like the American Waterworks Association, the National Rural Water Association and the National Association of Water Companies. Just one of the coalition's many members spent a reported $15-$20,000 per month on a PR/lobbying blitz.

An attempt to extend the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act (the "Clean Water Act") received committee approval in the Senate, but not the House. A leading player was the Clean Water Industry Coalition, a shadowy group made up of industry, agriculture, state and municipal organizations. USPIRG studied contributions from 263 PACs that were opposed to stronger clean water legislation. It found that these PACs gave $56.9 million in donations to candidates for Congress between 1987 and 1994. (Congress last reauthorized the Clean Water Act in 1987.)

The House, but not the Senate, passed a bill that would have enabled the US Forest Service to acquire a 44,000-acre privately owned redwood forest in California. The leading opponent was the American Forest and Paper Association. Timber and forest products PACs contributed $2.3 million to Congress.

Bills to revamp the 1980 Superfund law cleared committee in both chambers, but were stopped short of both the House and Senate floors. Many individual corporations, such as Du Pont, had their own lawyers and lobbyists working on the Hill. Such companies (185 of them) were also represented by the Chemical Manufacturers Association (the industry, as noted earlier, gave $3.8 million). Insurance companies were also involved because polluters have been using their environmental insurance policies to cover clean-up costs but want to deflect their liability. Their PACs gave $15.9 million to members of Congress (though they were also interested in other legislation, such as health care and tort reform).

Free-standing bills were introduced requiring government permits to convert wetlands. The House, but not the Senate, passed a bill extending the North American Wetlands Act through fiscal year 1998. A group of 60-some municipal associations, utilities and major industrial concerns, such as Exxon, Texaco and Kerr-McGee, make up the National Wetlands Coalition. Coalition members' PACs gave $5.5 million to candidates from 1991 through June, 1994. One law/lobbying firm associated with the coalition (Van Ness Feldman) gave $60,000 through its PAC during this period and individuals employed by the firm gave another $15,000. It is safe to assume that other coalition members' lobbyists had a similar spending pattern.

What's Next?

By the close of the 103rd Congress, it became patently clear that the best strategy for the Washington environmental lobby was to leave existing statutes alone and work against aggressive anti-environmental initiatives such as the takings, risk-assessment and unfunded-mandate bills that are being considered by the 104th Congress. That should leave considerable talent and energy to fight the real fight that has to be fought in Washington before environmentalism or any other social movement can make headway in America: campaign finance reform.

All of the 25 largest environmental organizations in the country have substantial offices in Washington. If they were to assign half their lobby to join forces with a coalition of other progressive movements and fight a concerted battle for campaign reform, the playing field could be leveled considerably for the 105th or 106th Congress - whatever the party in power.

[Mark Dowie's book, Losing Ground - American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, is available from MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142.

This article is reprinted from Capital Eye, with permission from the Center for Responsive Politics, 1320 - 19th St., NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036. Subscriptions are $30/year.]

Copyright Mendocino Environmental Center 1995

<-- Back to Environmentalism in the 21st Century

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