Little Movement on Key Environment Issues Expected in 1998

Published February 1, 1998

A short Congressional schedule, the political realities stemming from divided government, President Clinton’s uncertain political future, and a general lack of agreement on how to address a host of highly controversial environment issues–all make it unlikely that the environment reform gridlock in Washington will break in 1998.

With midterm elections slated for November, lawmakers will be spending as little time in Washington as they can get away with. The tight schedule, together with the desire to look good in voters’ eyes, will greatly reduce the time Senators and Congressmen will have and want to spend delving into the minutiae of environment policy.

What follows is a summary of the likely fate of the most contentious environment issues before Congress.

Global Warming Treaty

The Clinton administration has no plans to submit to the Senate a treaty that would have no chance of being ratified. The President has until March 15, 1999 to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and he is expected to use that time to persuade developing countries to commit to reducing their emissions of man-made greenhouse gases. Failure to bring a significant number of developing countries aboard the Kyoto bandwagon would all but doom the treaty in the Senate.

In addition, the administration hopes to interest other countries in a White House-backed greenhouse gas emissions-trading scheme, something U.S. negotiators conspicuously failed to do at the UN-sponsored climate change conference in Japan late last year. Among the many issues to be decided is whether the emissions would be traded among governments or regulated entities, such as manufacturing plants and electric utilities.

The U.S. and its negotiating partners will also have to clear up another matter left unresolved in Kyoto: What kind of international apparatus will oversee the various commitments made during and after Kyoto? The Protocol currently has no enforcement mechanism.

While these issues and more are being thrashed out at Kyoto follow-up conferences in Bonn and Buenos Aires this year, Congress will be looking more closely at just what the administration committed the U.S. to doing when it helped negotiate the Kyoto Protocol.

Hearings are being planned before several Congressional panels, including the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion, chaired by Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), and the Senate Armed Services Committee on Readiness, chaired by Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma). Both Hagel and Inhofe are outspoken opponents of the administration’s global warming policies, and their hearings are likely to be rather hostile affairs.

Congress will also be keeping a wary eye on administration attempts, real or imagined, to implement the unratified treaty by regulatory or other administrative means. The House Commerce Committee has already alerted Congressional treaty opponents to monitor all regulatory actions undertaken by federal agencies to make sure that the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol aren’t built into the bureaucracy before a ratification vote is taken.

To add to the administration’s difficulties, Senate Foreign Relation Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) on January 21 put the White House on notice that the Senate will not take action on an administration-backed nuclear test ban treaty until after it votes on the Kyoto Protocol and on amendments to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). The administration is eager to have the Senate ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and would like to put off a vote on the global warming treaty for as long as possible.

But in his letter to Clinton, Helms left little doubt as to where his priorities lie. “I have heard a great deal of discussion from supporters of the treaty [the Kyoto Protocol] indicating that the administration may attempt to circumvent both the Senate–and the American people–by simply imposing the treaty’s requirements on U.S. businesses by executive order. Mr. President, I must respectfully counsel this would be extremely unwise. (emphasis in the original)

“This treaty clearly requires the advice and consent of the Senate,” Helms continued. “Further, because the potential impact of the Kyoto Protocol on the American economy is so enormous, we owe it to the American people to let them know sooner, rather than later, whether they will be subject to the terms of this treaty.”

New Ozone and PM Standards

Congressional efforts to overturn EPA’s new standards for particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone have lapsed into a legislative deep sleep and show no signs of awakening.

In the House, support was slowly building for H.R. 1984, which would delay implementation of the new standards for four years until more is known about the human health effects of exposure to the two substances. But the bill has languished in the House Commerce Committee for months. Committee chairman Tom Bliley (R-Virginia) refuses to allow the bill to come up for a vote in his panel. Bliley contends that pushing the bill would be senseless unless its backers can guarantee they have the two-thirds votes necessary to override a certain presidential veto.

In the Senate, Senator James Inhofe still hopes to bring his bill, S. 1084, up for a vote this year. However, he, too, is thought to be several votes short of the 67 he needs to be veto-proof. With the logjam continuing in the House, Inhofe’s efforts may be futile.


Last year, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas) lobbed a grenade into the seemingly endless debate over what to do with the nation’s troubled hazardous waste cleanup program. Archer said he would block any reauthorization of Superfund taxes unless the program received a thorough overhaul. Archer’s threat still stands, but Superfund reform continues to elude Capitol Hill lawmakers.

None of the bills introduced so far in either the House or Senate shows much prospect of serving as the long-sought vehicle to reform a statute many consider deeply flawed. And, as with previous attempts to reform Superfund, liability reform and cleanup standards remain the chief stumbling blocks.

The administration is much less open to liability reform than are most Republicans, and the White House and Congressional Democrats remain wary of overhauling Superfund cleanup standards. All sides in the debate are still so far apart that the additional $650 million EPA was to receive to clean four hundred more Superfund sites by 2000 is in jeopardy. Under last year’s budget deal, EPA would receive the money only if Superfund has been reauthorized by May 15 of this year.

The threatened loss of Superfund taxes, and the prospect of extra money for additional site cleanups, were thought to be enough to prod Congress to agree on a fix for the program. That has not been the case. With time running out and Archer holding firm to his position on reauthorizing taxes for the Superfund Trust Fund, Congress will have to scramble if the program is not to become even more bogged down than it already is.

Endangered Species Act

Like Superfund, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is increasingly viewed as a flawed law . . . yet it, too, continues to defy reform.

Last year, Senator Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) introduced his Endangered Species Recovery Act (S. 1180) after tedious negotiations involving Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Senator John Chafee (R-Rhode Island), and others. Attempts to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote before Congress adjourned for the year failed, and resistance to the measure, particularly among groups generally friendly to the Republicans, has mushroomed in the months since S. 1180 was introduced.

Private property rights advocates criticize the bill for not providing compensation to landowners who experience property value losses resulting from enforcement of the ESA; exempting biological data from the Freedom of Information Act, thereby preventing challenges to such data; giving the Fish and Wildlife Service greater power to make ESA-related decisions unilaterally; and retaining the ESA’s definition of “harm” to include habitat modification.

Environmental groups, by contrast–most of which are generally satisfied with the ESA status quo–believe the Kempthorne bill goes too far in overhauling the current statute and oppose it for that reason.

Opposed by both the right and the left, Kempthorne’s proposal has failed to generate much excitement in the Senate. Anything resembling it would face drawn daggers in the House, particularly from Westerners whose constituents bear the brunt of the current ESA.