Air Date: Week of October 1, 1999
Congress and the President are still attempting to work out how to appropriate the budget for this fiscal year, which began on October 1. One of the sticking points is a group of environmental riders attached to larger spending bills. Mark Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard), Living On Earth’s political observer, speaks with Steve Curwood about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the riders issue.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The official beginning of the federal government's fiscal year came and went on October first, without allocating the budget. So the nation is now operating on what's called a continuing resolution, as Congress and the president haggle over the details of this year's spending bills. Among the sticklers are a few pieces of environmental legislation called riders that have been tagged onto larger spending measures. Mark Hertsgaard, Living on Earth's political observer, says one of the more contentious riders is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards, which stipulate minimum mileage for cars and trucks.
HERTSGAARD: Vice President Gore had a meeting last week with the major environmental groups in Washington. And they made it very clear to him that that issue of the higher fuel efficiency standards was their number one priority here, for two reasons. One, it's the most important thing the federal government could do to fight global warming, because the better the gas mileage, the fewer greenhouses gases go up in the atmosphere. But two, they also feel that politically, this is their fight. They tried to push Gore and Clinton last year to be tougher on this. Gore told them, quote, "Show me one senator who will support me on these issues." Now they've gone and they've gotten 40 senators. That number 40 is significant, because President Clinton needs a minimum of 34 votes to sustain his veto.
CURWOOD: Now, what about the rider on oil royalties? The federal government would like to raise those. This rider would not, right?
HERTSGAARD: That's correct, and this is the fourth such rider in the last 18 months. It's been promoted by Senator Kay Hutchison of Texas, and she won by a very slim margin, 51 to 47. It essentially spares the companies from having to pay these higher royalties. The irony of it is that the companies have already agreed separately, in lawsuits with individual states including Texas, as well as California, Alaska, Louisiana, and so forth. The states have been suing these companies on the same grounds, that hey, you guys are not paying the legally required royalties. And the companies have settled out of court for a total of $5 billion.
CURWOOD: There's another rider regarding protection of the stratospheric ozone layer, the layer that keeps ultraviolet from coming through. What's going on with that one?
HERTSGAARD: That one has to do with funding for helping Third World countries stop using CFCs. Those are the chemicals that are the main cause of ozone depletion. There's something called the multilateral fund, which the United States and other industrial nation governments pay into, to help China, for example, invest in ozone-friendly refrigerators, air conditioning systems, and so forth. The argument of the Third World countries has always been, look, we don't want to destroy the ozone layer, but we don't have the technology or the money to move in a better direction. This thing, the multilateral fund, was set up to help them improve their performance in this area. This new rider would cut the funds to that agency, and therefore would obviously retard efforts on the part of China and other countries to be more environmentally careful.
CURWOOD: Do you think these riders are going to go through?
HERTSGAARD: That's the big question, and the administration is floating, in the press, the threat the Clinton will veto, Clinton will veto. However, you've got an environmental community who has heard that before. One source of mine in Washington said, look, last year Bill Clinton went before the annual dinner of the League of Conservation Voters and publicly said he would veto any bills containing anti-environmental riders. He then approved 30 out of the 40 riders that were attached. And if you're a Republican leader, getting 30 out of 40 has got to be a pretty good deal. And this year Clinton has not yet made that kind of public declaration. So, the environmental community is wary about this.
On the other hand there is, of course, a big change recently, and that's the fact that Friends of the Earth has formally endorsed Bill Bradley rather than Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, and that is surely going to figure in the calculations at the White House.
CURWOOD: What do you think this endorsement by Friends of the Earth of Bill Bradley is really going to mean?
HERTSGAARD: Well, I'll tell you what the Democratic House Whip David Bonior said. He thinks that this is going to stiffen the spine of Clinton and Gore, and that they will therefore veto some of these bills. He said that precisely because of the endorsement, that the administration, quote, "is going to be looking for environmental things to be strong on." Gore himself has said that he was, quote, "personally wounded" by the Friends of the Earth endorsement. So, it's certainly gotten their attention, and it has shown Mr. Gore that he cannot take the environmental vote for granted.
CURWOOD: Are there any lessons here for Gore's opponents? Not just Bradley, but the Republicans as well.
HERTSGAARD: I would say so. There is a very interesting new poll that's been done by the independent pollster John Zogby, that looks at Republican voters, likely primary voters in the states of California, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York. And it found an astonishingly high degree of support for environmentalism. Ninety-three percent of the voters surveyed -- these are Republicans -- said that environmental issues were very important in their decision of which candidate they would back in the election. That is the same amount as said that family values were important. It's higher than the amount who said that cutting taxes was important. It's significantly higher than the amount who said that banning abortions was important. So what that says to me is that the environment, now, is clearly no longer a partisan issue. It has become a mom and apple-pie concern of everyday Americans, and whether you're a Republican or a Democratic politician, you have got to make voters understand that you favor strong environmental regulation.
CURWOOD: So if Republicans aren't attaching these riders for their voters, then why are they doing it?
HERTSGAARD: Well, now, I don't want to sound cynical here, Steve. But --
CURWOOD: Go ahead.
HERTSGAARD: It's a little hard to avoid the conclusion that this has an awful lot more to do with their big money campaign contributions than any of their reading of the public opinion polls. If you look at, for example, again here the question with the royalties, the oil royalties. It's very clear that those companies have been underpaying royalties for a long time. They would not have settled with the states for $5 billion worth in damages if they weren't guilty. And nevertheless, you've got a senator like Hutchison who is going to be pushing this through. And if you look at a lot of these different riders that we've already discussed today, you can draw a pretty strong correlation with the campaign contributions that the members have had. So, you know, this is not a new story, I know, big money in politics. But I think, as this week's events show, it is still a very relevant one.
CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much for taking this time with us today, Mark.
HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. He spoke to us from San Francisco.
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