Issue 14 Editor's Letter

By Mark Spellun

now that the democratic party controls both houses of Congress, the environmental landscape has changed significantly. Environmentalists don’t have to worry so much about blocking bad legislation—instead, they can start thinking about what they actually want to do. So what should enviros be wishing for in the new year?

There are a number of issues that call for attention—global warming, declining fish populations, and endangered species, to name just a few. But a good place to start might be more fundamental: reforming Congress. Voters last fall named the Iraq war and corruption as the primary reasons they voted Republicans out. As for the former, Congress will likely let President Bush try to figure his own way out of the disaster he’s created in Iraq. For the latter, though, they shouldn’t be nearly so laissez-faire. Enviromentalists in particular have been rightly outraged by the actions of Bush and Congress. Environmental laws have been weakened or overlooked, and Bush has consistently given top jobs at the EPA and the Department of Energy to industry cronies who are more concerned about padding their profits than safeguarding the health of our citizens or protecting our natural resources. These special interests, and the lobbyists who do their dirty work, have grown much too powerful in recent years.

It’s time for a change. In January 2006 Democratic leaders unveiled the not-so-subtly named Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. It would tighten rules on lobbying by former legislators, limit gifts and travel from lobbyists, and make many Congressional proceedings more transparent. Ideas to reform Congress are as old as the institution itself, and many of the more recent ones, including this act, revolve around congressional earmarks—specific line items in a spending bill that have become the primary vehicle for congressional pork or special interest funding. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act won’t completely put a stop to unfair influence or pork barrel spending—but it’s a start.

It’s likely that the next two years will be characterized more by gridlock than ground-breaking legislation, as was the case during Clinton’s last two years in office. Back then, there was no way the Republicans were going to allow Clinton to claim any major victories; the Democrats will likely give Bush the same treatment. By the same token, it’s unlikely that Bush will pander much to the Democrats, and he’ll use his veto power to make it difficult to pass any comprehensive environmental legislation.

But why not reform House and Senate rules so that crucial environmental legislation isn’t stymied by special interest groups? Though none of the proposed changes will completely insulate Congress, we can certainly improve on the current situation. Efforts to limit the impact of lobbyists and attempts to make the legislative process more transparent should be pursued.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the house, has committed to passing some version of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in the new term. Let’s hope she can pull it off. Lobbyists who represent companies from Industrial Revolutions past will always have the most money to spend to woo legislators—but as last fall’s election proved, voters have the power to bounce the lawmakers who listen to them too closely.

One of the worst forms of corruption is the despoliation of our natural resources, as it usually involves taking things in the public domain and using them for private gain. If we are ever going to put our non-renewable resources to their best use, we are going to have to change the way Congress works; it alone has the power to draft the legislation that can protect these valuable and irreplaceable goods.

Issue 25

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