Air Date: Week of February 28, 1997
Superfund, Clean Air and electric utility restructuring: these are just a few major pieces of legislation that will land on the desk of Congressman Thomas J. Bliley this year. The Virginia Republican is Chairman of the House Commerce Committee. During the last Congress, he forged some uncommon alliances and moved certain environmental issues forward. But as James Jones reports, Bliley's conservative resume still makes environmentalists nervous.
CURWOOD: Many, if not most, environmental bills in Congress have to pass muster in the House Commerce Committee before they can make it onto the House floor. And that means the chairman of House Commerce, Thomas J. Bliley, Jr., is a key gatekeeper for environmental legislation. Mr. Bliley, a Republican from Virginia, is widely credited for forging uncommon alliances on environmental legislation during the last Congress. From Washington, James Jones has this profile of Chairman Bliley.
MAN: Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Chairman Thomas Bliley.
JONES: Congressman Tom Bliley is a tall, silver-haired gentleman whose trademarks are a bow tie and a genuine Virginia drawl. He's right at home addressing members of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He embraces the group's free market philosophy, and he's lived up to his reputation as a powerful anti-regulation leader in Congress.
BLILEY: It was government on automatic pilot. But we are beginning to change that, to put the American people back in the driver's seat. In the days ahead we will continue the process of careful oversight of the departments within agencies within our jurisdiction. And it's an important part of our effort to improve regulation, make it more flexible and more cost efficient. An effort that's already yielded considerable success. For as long as...
JONES: A mortician by trade, Bliley has carried the anti-regulatory torch throughout his political career, first as a conservative Democrat and mayor of Richmond, Virginia, in the early 70s and then as a Republican convert during his successful 1980 bid to represent Virginia's Seventh Congressional District. When the GOP gained control of the 104th Congress, Bliley took over the Commerce Committee and led the GOP effort to rewrite environmental regulations. Given his record, Tom Bliley hardly seems like someone who helped push through the only 2 environmental bills to pass Congress last year. But Eric Olsen of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that's exactly what happened.
OLSEN: He generally will start with a position that is fairly extreme. At least he did on the pesticide law. He did on the drinking water law. But he has been willing, unlike some of his colleagues, he has been willing after introducing a bill like that to sit down and try to negotiate something that sort of retreats from some of the more extreme elements of the party and retreats from some of the more extreme proposals that have been made.
JONES: Congressman Bliley accomplished what Democrats and the White House could not. He forged a compromise between the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats.
SWIFT: Tom is a problem solver.
JONES: Former Congressman Al Swift, a Democrat from Washington State who worked with Bliley on the Commerce Committee says one thing is clear: Tom Bliley's success in moving controversial environmental bills is driven by a desire to get the job done.
SWIFT: People like Bliley were never a part of this kind of fervent wet-lipped salivating right-wingism that is prevalent on the Republican side on the Hill. And if you will look, the Republican leadership now claims this to be the most productive Congress in history, I think. They couldn't make that claim had it not been for guys like Bliley, who actually got something done toward the end of the last Congress.
JONES: While Bliley is forging a reputation as a consensus builder, on Capitol Hill there is little consensus about Tom Bliley.
LOYLESS: Well, I would describe his environmental record as exceedingly poor.
JONES: Betsy Loyless, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, gives Bliley some credit for the environmental bills he's moved through Congress. But she's suspicious of his motivation.
LOYLESS: I think that he is very conservative and for the most part anti-environment member of Congress who chairs the Commerce Committee. And who when it is appropriate and it is appropriate because it's politically expedient is able to command his committee and move legislation that's agreed on.
JONES: Bliley's critics also dislike his steadfast defense of the tobacco industry. Virginia is, after all, the home of Philip Morris. And Fran Dumelle of the American Heart Association says Bliley is not shy about using his power to protect his powerful constituents.
DUMELLE: Mr. Bliley stopped the committee's investigation into the tobacco industry in the previous Congress. Mr. Waxman had initiated a number of oversight hearings in to the industry's disclosure to the public of what did they know, when did they know it? Mr. Bliley ended those hearings and in fact did the opposite: let's investigate the Federal agencies that are trying to regulate the tobacco industry.
JONES: In the last decade Congressman Bliley has been the leading recipient of funds from tobacco industry political action committees. The chemical industry and agribusiness are also major contributors to his campaigns. Casey Tomonovic, political manager of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, says there is good reason for this support.
TOMONOVIC: We are thrilled that Tom Bliley is the chairman of the Commerce Committee. As well, he's been trying over the past 2 years to help small business owners in the horrible nightmare problem they have with Superfund. He's been looking for a fair and balanced solution to a very broken Superfund program.
JONES: Blaming partisan politics, Representative Bliley says he's disappointed that his committee could not move a Superfund bill last year. But now with the election over, he strikes a cautious but optimistic tone when evaluating the bill's prospects in the current Congress.
BLILEY: So I fully expect some, a movement. We will not be going at a breakneck speed. We're not going to do it in 100 days. But we are going to move with steady but deliberate progress, and hopefully we will get a resolution to the issue.
JONES: The question is, will Tom Bliley again be willing to craft compromises business groups and environmentalists can both live with? Representative Henry Waxman was the chief negotiator for the Democrats on the Food Safety and Drinking Water bills last year. He's hopeful that the trend started during the last Congress will continue.
WAXMAN: Even though Congressman Bliley and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, we were able to negotiate the Pesticide bill and the Drinking Water Act because we worked in good faith and we wanted to accomplish a good result. So I'm hopeful that we can do that as well on the Superfund issue. And if we end up in a fight on the Clean Air Act, avoid a confrontation and agree on whatever changes need to be made or agree that we will let the Environmental Protection Agency regulations be commented on and then adjusted.
JONES: Tom Bliley can't help patting himself on the back a bit for his success last year. And despite an air of bipartisanship currently sweeping Capitol Hill, he still takes an occasional slap at the Democrats and the President when it comes to environmental initiative.
BLILEY: We passed more environmental legislation in the last Congress than the President in his first 2 years when he had a Democrat House and a Democrat Senate. He passed zero. And so, we were considerably ahead of him.
JONES: The chairman appears ready to pick up where he left off, and a number of environmental and business groups will be watching to find out if Tom Bliley the deal maker or Tom Bliley the conservative will carry the day during the 105th Congress. For Living on Earth, I'm James Jones in Washington.
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