Democrats resort to banana bread

  • Cartoon of Gingrich with elephant/Greenberg/Courtesy Seattle Pos

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The scene was vintage Washington power breakfast: a private room at the Old Ebbitt Grill across from the Treasury Department. The table held plates of bagels and banana bread. The burgundy napkins complemented the Oriental rug and the velvet chairs. Those are the lures reporters expect from a deposed potentate or a corporation anxious to burnish a tarnished image.

All the more strange, then, that the people hoping to attract the press were two Democrats who just three months ago would have had journalists grateful for a returned phone call.

California Reps. George Miller and Henry Waxman were until very recently the most powerful environmentalists in the House of Representatives, as chairmen, respectively, of the Natural Resources Committee and the health and environment subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Miller has been in Congress for 20 years; Waxman, 26. In those years, they masterminded much of the country's most significant environmental legislation: timber and water reform, safe drinking water standards, Tongass National Forest protection and new energy conservation standards to the monumental 1990 Clean Air Act reauthorization.

But here they were on a gray February morning, offering two dozen reporters a disquieting blend of hand-wringing, pleading and frustration. Two days before, Miller and Waxman had seen three House subcommittees ram through chunks of the GOP "Contract With America" designed to bury all existing federal regulations under a complex cost-benefit analysis requiring the cheapest alternatives. The bills, HR 450 and Title III of HR 9, are being fast-tracked as part of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's 100-day plan to implement the Contract.

In one swoop the bills would, as Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner has said, "undermine every single environmental and public health standard in the country."

Many of those standards the two California congressmen spent most of their adult lives creating. During the Reagan-Bush years, conservatives mounted a campaign to neuter the country's environmental regulations under the rubric of "regulatory reform." They failed, but they didn't go away.

Now the angry opposition is running the show, and the agenda for gutting the regulatory process, carefully focus-grouped and retitled the "Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act," is flying through the committees. And Miller and Waxman, former masters of the House, seem helpless to influence events.

"In the House of Representatives there is not any indication that anyone in the Republican side is interested in any compromise or consensus," Waxman said. "We probably will be offering alternatives that we hope will be considered sensible ... but we're not under any illusions. They don't see a reason to try to accommodate us."

"It's important that we have alternatives," Miller added, so bills cannot be hidden behind misleading titles, such as "Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act." "It is not that we think we're going to win those votes, but to pull these apart ... so the media can pull them apart and show the American public what the effect will be."

Clearly those alternatives, whatever they are, are not going to sway the new congressional majority. And it was hard to imagine a media campaign, even a media campaign involving a lot more reporters than the bagel-fed contingent in this room, rallying the public to the dangers of the Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act before it passed the House.

Maybe, Miller said, they'd have better luck in the Senate, where Newt Gingrich doesn't set the agenda, and which takes "100 years' to do what the House does in 100 days.

"But we worry still about junky bills getting through the Senate," Waxman said. "The (Clinton) administration will be under intense pressure to sign these bills."

So here were two senior legislators writing off the House, saying that the Senate was iffy and President Clinton even shakier. Where's the environmental lobby, the people who are supposed to be defending conservation interests in Washington?

"The environmental community is getting reactivated," Waxman said, with more than a hint of wistfulness.

Shortly after the election, the major environmental groups turned their lobbying efforts toward moderate Republicans in the House and Senate, such as Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I. They also set to picking apart the 600-plus page Contract and mobilizing their members to protest its anti-conservation aspects. Thus far, those efforts have had no perceptible effect on the legislative juggernaut.

"In some ways, the sooner we get these laws passed ..." Miller, always the more pugnacious of the two men, interjected, "there will be the emergence of a far different environmental movement that will be locally based, because there will no longer be national standards."

"I think (the Republicans) are going to pay a heavy price in 1996," Waxman concluded, effectively writing off a congressional session that has only just begun.

Nancy Shute is a reporter in Washington, D.C.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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