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A Spark of Life Among the Moderates : Wise environmental reform finds new friends in Congress

The strange contortions in the House of Representatives over crippling the Environmental Protection Agency speak volumes about internal Republican divisions and fears over pushing back environmental safeguards. The welcome news here is the emergence of a substantial bloc of Republicans, most notably Sherwood L. Boehlert of Upstate New York, who see potential disaster if the reactionary steamroller over health and environmental regulations moves on.

Last Friday Boehlert and 50 other Republicans stunned their leadership by joining Democrats to pass an amendment (212-206) to kill 17 riders to an appropriation bill that would undermine the EPA’s ability to enforce numerous regulations. But by Monday night the GOP leadership managed to reverse the action, by rounding up some Republicans who were absent Friday and getting one CaliforniaDemocrat, Calvin Dooley of Visalia, to switch his vote. That was enough to make a 210-210 tie, thus killing the amendment. The bill, cutting EPA funding by a staggering one-third, now goes to the Senate. President Clinton vowed Tuesday to veto it in its present form.

IGNORING THE PAIN: What was most significant about the second vote was that none of the original 51 Republicans changed his or her vote, despite painful arm-twisting. It was a loud warning that Republican moderates will not accept wholesale dismantling of environmental protections, many of them raised under Republican presidents. Similarly, moderates of both parties in the Senate have thus far bottled up a bill sponsored by the majority leader, Bob Dole (R-Kan.), that would put sharp limits on federal safety, health and environmental rules by requiring lengthy cost-benefit and risk analyses. The upper chamber also promises to repair some of the worst flaws in the House-passed Clean Water Act.

The Republican dissidents have also expressed distaste for efforts to gut regulations not by repealing them outright but by the devious method of cutting appropriations. The riders would deny funding for the EPA to enforce rules affecting wetlands, automobile emission inspections and urban water pollution from sewer systems. There are legitimate issues surrounding these rules, but this is not the way to resolve them.

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The dissidents are acting out of enlightened self-interest. Opinion polls consistently find strong bipartisan support for environmental protections. “Republicans will be in power for another generation if they do two things: soften some of the hard edges and don’t turn their back on the environment,” Boehlert said. Many other Republicans seem married to the notion of blunderbuss “reforms,” but it will take only one bad case of water pollution in a residential area to make it clear how much value the public places on environmental safety. “Call home,” advised Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.).

TWO BIG LESSONS: Sadly, only one of the 25 Republicans from California saw the wisdom of that advice--Rep. Steve Horn of Long Beach, who voted for the Boehlert amendment. Two Democrats, Gary A. Condit of Ceres and later Dooley, voted no. Both are too beholden to agricultural interests.

We see two lessons in all this. First, the trend toward making policy in congressional appropriations is unwise. Broad policy changes should be raised when laws like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act come up for renewal every five years, not in the relative secrecy and speed of the appropriations process.

Second, we need a pause in the rush to reform environmental laws. Many of these statutes and their regulations are overly burdensome and outdated. They should be rewritten carefully to bring them into conformity with modern science and economic realities, not hacked up with a legislative machete.

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