The Legislative Record
Environment & The 106th Congress
It isn't a record to be proud of. It took 20 legislative funding extensions for the 106th Congress finally to perform its most basic and inescapable task - passage of the 13 annual spending bills that keep the government running. When the 106th Congress finally shut its doors in mid-December - after an unusual lame duck session - its environmental legacy lay largely in its failure to take any meaningful action to protect the environment.
Lawmakers made big promises at the outset of the 106th Congress. Key committees promised to deliver comprehensive Superfund reform, begin a reauthorization process for the Clean Air Act, revisit the Endangered Species Act, and pass utility restructuring legislation. None of those efforts succeeded and most barely got off the ground. Sixty-five cosponsors could not get a brownfields cleanup bill passed in the Senate because Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) held the initiative hostage to a big liability rollback for the mining industry. Lawmakers also failed to address water contamination caused by methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), or promote energy-efficiency and renewable-energy incentives. And Congress fumbled reauthorization of a pipeline safety bill and the Coastal Zone Management Act which included provisions to control polluted runoff.
Half of the bills enacted by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee named federal buildings or bridges. Of the 180 bills enacted by the House Resources Committee, the vast majority were technical corrections or authorizations of minor projects.
Instead of passing bills through the normal process of holding hearings and public votes, the 106th Congress, like its predecessor, resorted to stealth attacks on environmental protections by attaching provisions, known as riders, to spending bills. The 106th Congress attempted to attach 135 anti-environmental riders to spending bills, and enacted 87 of them (See Appendices A and B). In fact, out of the 88 legislative steps back in the 106th Congress, 87 of them came in the form of legislative riders. Fortunately, since 1995, President Clinton made good use of his veto authority to block bills containing riders that would have weakened environmental protections. Without President Clinton's opposition since 1995, more than 75 riders would have undermined key programs under virtually every major statute, including those governing clean air, clean water, endangered species, safe drinking water, and the Superfund program (See Appendix C). Without the deterrent of a veto threat, lawmakers would have attempted to sneak through even more numerous and aggressive anti-environmental riders. As President Bush begins his term, it will be critical for him to repudiate anti-environmental riders and stand firm against budget assaults.
Congress did pass some positive provisions during in the final days of the session in the area of land preservation. The first was a major $12 billion lands conservation funding package. The second was a multi-billion dollar authorization bill to restore the Everglades. Although environmentalists will have to closely monitor the appropriations process to make sure lawmakers spend money on bonafide conservation projects, the funding boosts for environmental restoration projects are significant..
The 106th Congress also achieved some success in protecting coasts and marine life. It passed bills that will improve beach water quality and monitoring, restore estuaries, reauthorize the national marine sanctuary program at higher funding levels, reduce wasteful shark finning practices, and help protect coral reefs.
When one looks at the scope of the environmental issues we face today, however, the environmental record compiled by the 106th Congress is dismal. Despite a decade of warmer average temperatures than any time in the last half million years - and mounting public concern about the potential consequences of global warming - Congress not only failed to pass domestic initiatives to combat the problem, but it prevented federal agencies from even considering a reasonable response. The international negotiation process to finalize the Kyoto Protocol stalled out in the Hague last November, leaving responsibility for the continued negotiating process in the hands of the Bush administration. With the world's climate at serious risk, the 107th Congress must take a more responsible approach to this problem..
Congress looked the other way on another looming problem: the so-called "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico caused by excessive nutrients flowing from the Mississippi River basin. It also failed to consider adequate remedies for ocean pollution and collapsing fisheries. Congress even attacked proposals to reduce polluted runoff, the largest water pollution problem facing our country. And despite a pronounced, nationwide air pollution problem, it missed an opportunity to pass a bill requiring the cleanup of dirty, grandfathered coal-fired power plants.
Two of the most significant events of the 106th Congress were the deaths of environmental heroes, Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), and Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.). Sen. Chafee served on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for more than two decades and chaired it for five years. He left his mark on nearly every major environmental statute and authored many critical environmental measures, including Superfund legislation, a Clean Air Act amendment that phased out ozone-depleting substances, the Oil Pollution Protection Act, the Clean Water Act of 1986, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, barrier beach legislation, and the law that created the National Wildlife Refuge System. Over the past several years, as legislative gridlock tightened, Sen. Chafee worked tirelessly to find common ground, managing to pass the Safe Drinking Water Act amendments in 1996, just two years after Rep. Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" launched an assault on environmental protections.
Rep. Vento served on the Resources Committee in the House of Representatives, where he chaired the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands for more than 10 years. During his 12 terms, Rep. Vento compiled a distinguished record of environmentally responsible votes and leadership. His dedicated work resulted in the enactment of more than 300 laws protecting hundreds of thousands of acres of precious lands, from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the Minnesota National Wildlife Refuge, to new parks and wilderness in Alaska and American Samoa..
This report, which focuses on legislation affecting air, lands, water, pesticides, food safety, and the regulatory process, analyzes all major environmental legislative activity in the 106th Congress, summarizing each bill and the most significant legislative riders under general headings of "steps forward" or "steps back." Each section evaluates the progress by subject area, tallying only enacted legislation and major riders to determine whether, in the end, the 106th Congress advanced or retreated in protecting public health and the environment. It should be noted that, although lawmakers introduced many environmental bills, only the most significant riders and legislation enacted are included in our final tally.
Below are summaries of the results of the 106th session by topic:
AIR, ENERGY & GLOBAL WARMING
The 106th Congress was a tumultuous time for air and energy policy. Legislators began the session with a bold agenda. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee pledged to start reauthorization hearings on the Clean Air Act, and energy committees in both houses had plans to pass federal utility restructuring legislation. But by the closing days of the Congress, these bold ideas were a dim memory. Instead of tackling these issues head on, the 106th Congress worked at the margins. Lawmakers attached riders to spending bills to delay implementation of the Clean Air Act and hinder actions to combat global warming. Meanwhile, a handful of legislators fought hard to fund energy efficiency and clean energy initiatives, but came up short. And late in the second session, Congress took a pass on saving energy and consumer dollars when it failed to enact tax incentives for energy-efficient buildings and equipment, despite the fact that the bill enjoyed the support of such unlikely allies as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
WATER , COASTAL & MARINE RESOURCES
The 106th Congress did make some progress protecting ocean and coastal resources, but there were disappointments as well. Just before adjournment, Congress managed to pass a number of good measures: the "Beach Bill," which requires national standards for monitoring and notification of water pollution at public beaches; the Estuary Restoration Partnership Act, which authorizes public-private partnerships to conserve and restore estuary ecosystems; and a coral reef protection bill that provides grants and establishes a national management program for coral reefs. On the other hand, opponents of cleaner water standards were able to suspend for one year the implementation of the Clinton administration's new regulations to reduce polluted runoff into rivers and streams that are too dirty to sustain fishing, swimming or aquatic life. In addition, Congress failed to reauthorize the Coastal Zone Management Act to fund state non-point pollution controls, and it did not ensure that hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked in the Commerce Department Appropriations bill to clean up oil and gas drilling coastal pollution will be used effectively.
The difference between the Clinton administration and the 106th Congress was most pronounced in the area of public lands and resources protection. Over the last two years, the Clinton administration made significant strides, designating 18 new national monuments across the West, and in the process protecting 3,000-year-old Sequoia trees, hundreds of miles of Pacific coastline, and millions of acres of beautiful landscapes. The Clinton administration also launched a landmark initiative to protect as much as 60 million acres of pristine national forests, and another initiative to establish marine protected areas.
But on Capitol Hill, besides Everglades restoration and land conservation funding agreements, most public lands legislation stalled or moved in the wrong direction. The 106th Congress missed the opportunity to pass bills that would protect unique wilderness areas in Utah or ban oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some members tried unsuccessfully to block new national monument designations. Continuing a trend that began in the 104th Congress, the 106th Congress initiated a slew of backdoor attacks on public lands through anti-environmental riders on spending bills. Lawmakers were able to attach riders that block federal review of grazing permits and increase logging incentives.
HEALTH & NUCLEAR SAFETY
Threats to public health protections were prevalent the 106th Congress. Lawmakers attached riders that attempted to block or delay new drinking water standards for arsenic and radon, as well as riders that would block stronger state food protection standards. Possibly the worst threat, which fortunately did not pass either chamber, was a bill introduced by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) that would have eliminated the special pesticide protections that the Food Quality Protection Act affords to the most vulnerable of all: our children.
REGULATORY REFORM & TAKINGS
Despite the fact that the House passed several controversial bills, for the most part these bills lost steam in the Senate. As a result, Congress was unable to pass any substantial legislation that would undermine the regulatory process, weaken the Endangered Species Act, block new environmental or health regulations, or encourage "takings" claims requiring the government to pay people not to harm the environment.
DAMAGE DONE: TALLY OF ENVIRONMENTAL MEASURES ENACTED IN THE 106TH CONGRESS
|Enacted Steps Forward||7||Not Applicable|
|Enacted Steps Back||1||87|
Get Updates and Alerts
- #Comebackcity: How Clean Energy can Revitalize a City, State
- posted by Ariana Gonzalez, 7/30/15
- Vetoing Bill, Governor Brown Calls for Stronger Medicine to Curb Antibiotic Resistance
- posted by Jonathan Kaplan, 9/30/14
- California Legislative Session Ends with Big Wins for Our Health and Environment
- posted by Victoria Rome, 9/17/14
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.