I don’t get it. Why are the 24-hour news media, always desperate for gripping stories, reporting every hour on the Camp David summit, though, as I write this column, they have no access to what’s really going on? Why don’t some of those eager reporters move over to Capitol Hill to cover the constantly changing, fully public, ludicrous, horrifying, astounding, comical, fascinating, and, I would argue, far more important Annual Battle of the Environmental Riders?
Which is more important to Americans, anyway — the governance of East Jerusalem or the purity of the air we breathe? Who is more pig-headed — Yasir Arafat, insistent on carving out his own poverty-stricken nation from odd patches of Middle Eastern desert, or Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), intent on cutting down the Tongass National Forest? A forest, the reporters might point out, of some interest to all of us, because we own it.
Here’s a dramatic story, just one of 50 being enacted within the busy hive of our Congress this week. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) is working to become the first person ever to be given credit for extinguishing a species. He has authored a small piece of legislation that would allow a drought-stricken New Mexico irrigation project to pump every drop out of the Rio Grande River. That is presently forbidden by the Endangered Species Act, because drying up the river would doom a silvery minnow that lives only there — not to mention every other creature that lives there, endangered or not.
The irrigation district is one of the most inefficient in the West. Its administrators have known they were running into water limits even in non-drought years, but have done nothing to enforce water conservation measures.
Because his relief bill for wasteful irrigators would never get anywhere on its own, Domenici, in time-honored congressional fashion, turned it into a rider. Riders are stuck onto big, necessary funding bills like leeches or ticks or those parasitic lampreys that hang onto sharks. Those who stick them hope that the president, to get the money he needs to run the government, will sign the bill and the public will not notice.
First Domenici pasted his rider to the bill that funds the Department of the Interior. The enviros mounted so much opposition that he removed it and attached it to the Energy and Water spending bill. Next to it sits another rider that would block the Army Corps of Engineers from releasing extra water in the spring from the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River in order to help the breeding of endangered fish and birds downstream.
Every summer the major funding bills lumber through the committee rooms and attract these nasty little riders. It’s a daily story with much more import than Elian Gonzalez, but so far it only plays on environmental websites.
Here’s a short excerpt from a Defenders of Wildlife report: “In other action, the Senate defeated on a narrow 50-49 vote a rider by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) to prevent any more presidential designations of national monuments without congressional approval. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate minority whip, was instrumental in rallying enough votes to persuade Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) to withdraw his rider designed to block a National Park Service decision to prohibit the use of snowmobiles in most national parks.”
In case you didn’t follow all those double negatives, the Park Service, beset by noise and pollution and complaints from hikers and skiers, is trying to forbid snowmobiles; Thomas is trying to keep that from happening. His rider is not dead; he can reattach it to any bill within reach, even at midnight at the last conference committee when no one is paying attention. If media spotlights would only shine on this skullduggery, we’d find it at least as intriguing as the X-Files.
As of last week, 52 anti-environmental riders were attached to various bills, and the number is rising. The Agriculture funding bill at the moment carries one little zinger (courtesy of Sen. Larry Craig [R-Idaho]) that would stop new regulations on hardrock mining — regulations that would protect groundwater, ensure that mining companies pay for toxic cleanup, and allow the government to refuse mining permits. Another rider authored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) would take land from Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore for the building of two huge, pointless, destructive jetties.
There are riders to stop the government from spending any money to combat climate change; to reduce the royalties that oil companies pay for extracting oil from public lands; to stop the release of information telling us how bad our city’s air pollution is; to stop the government from designating roadless areas in national forests — and so on. Some of them will get all the way through the president’s signature, some will die. The story has more daily changes than CNN, more suspense than Survivor.
Observant readers will note that all the sponsors of anti-environmental riders I have cited here are Republicans. That’s not because I biased the pick; it’s because this is a Republican game. If we could watch the rider drama on the news, it would not take us long to figure out who the bad guys are.
Maybe one reason we are shown Camp David and Elian and the X-Files and Survivor and campaign ads instead of the actual working of our actual government is precisely so we won’t figure that out.