Commentary

No Corporate Wolf at the Environmental Door

As the dust settles from the electoral explosion detonated by voters on Nov. 5, Washington is abuzz over what the Republican romp means for the legislative agenda of the incoming 108th Congress. While Democratic spin-meisters try to minimize the import of the thrashing they received on Election Day, their interest group allies are already waxing hysterical over the long, dark night that is supposedly settling across political America - and nowhere will that political night supposedly prove darker than on the environmental policy horizon. Light no candles, however. The sun, for better or worse, will indeed come out tomorrow.

Environmentalists, however, do have some reason to worry. It turns out that being designated as one of the League of Conservation Voters’ “Dirty Dozen” was less a kiss of death than a political “good housekeeping seal of approval.” The Sierra Club, the LCV, and a host of other Green groups spent millions of dollars to hammer “Dirty Dozen” denizens John Sununu (New Hampshire), Wayne Allard (Colorado), Saxby Chambliss (Georgia), and Jim Talent (Missouri) - to no apparent effect. While the Greens did bag half their targeted list (mostly the small fry in less important House campaigns), pollsters report that environmental issues had virtually no effect on those races.

Until the Democrats can prove that being tarred as “an enemy of the environment” will have political consequences, Republicans might well become more emboldened to take on Greens than they have been in the past.

Still, there’s little reason to think that a wholesale assault on environmental regulations is in the offing. First, the Senate is a 60-vote institution given the omnipresent threat of a filibuster. The Democrats might be wounded, but they still have a lot of Senate votes and a political base that they can abandon only at their peril. Remember, were it not for Green defections to Ralph Nader in 2000, Al Gore would be sitting in the White House today. Accordingly, the Democrats can be counted on to filibuster - and prevail - over any symbolically important Republican environmental initiative that reaches the Senate floor.

Second, the Republicans lack an environmental agenda and thus have nothing in the policy cupboard to put on the political table. If anyone out there in GOP-land has plans to “gut” the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, or any of the two dozen major environmental laws that govern this country, I have yet to hear about it. Of course, environmentalists would counter that Bush’s regulatory agenda over the past couple of years put the entire Green enterprise in jeopardy. But that’s symptomatic of The New Republic’s Gregg Easterbrook’s observation that the trouble with environmentalists is that they are incapable of distinguishing between a bicycle accident and the end of civilization. Aside from the fight over the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, President Bush has, on balance, stood accused not of rolling back regulations but of slowing the pace of regulatory advance or of making exceptions in the federal review of environmental impacts in the use of particular public lands. On balance, however, environmental regulations and federally directed environmental cleanup activities are tighter and more thoroughgoing today than they were under the Clinton administration.

Third, and most importantly, Americans are by-and-large reasonably comfortable with the environmental code as it exists. While they clearly aren’t ready to jump off an economic cliff and embrace the Kyoto Protocol, they aren’t about to enlist for political jihads against environmental regulations. Although a strong case for sweeping reforms can be made, the president would have to spend a tremendous amount of political capital to convince the public (and thus, its representatives in Congress) that the proposed changes wouldn’t lay waste to the environment. Without success in that arena, no substantive environmental reforms will pass no matter how aggressive the corporate community gets or how much “free-lancing” occurs within the Republican caucus.

While such a reform campaign is long overdue, President Bush is well known for carefully husbanding his political capital. With wars against terrorism and Iraq and political campaigns for tax cuts, Social Security reform, terrorism insurance, tort reform, his “faith-based” initiative, and judicial appointments, it’s unlikely that President Bush will find the time to open up yet another can of political worms - particularly since opening this can could energize the Democratic base and lead to no end of poisonous demagoguery.

I wish it were otherwise, but there it is. While Green fundraisers will certainly find it useful to cry that the corporate wolf is at the environmental door, those warnings are less from the three pigs than from Chicken Little.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resources studies at the Cato Institute.