March 1, 2000

Outlook On Federal Environmental Legislation

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Rich Gold

The only significant action on environmental legislation in 2000 may have come on February 10th, when the Senate passed a nuclear waste storage bill, S. 1287, by a vote of 64-34. The legislation would govern the short-term disposal of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants in 34 states and from military reactors. However, it is unlikely that this legislation will become law since it passed by three votes short of the 67 needed to override a promised Presidential veto. The House has yet to act on companion legislation.

Since 2000 is an election year, Congressional leadership will be pressing hard to complete the appropriations process quickly in order to allow Members to return to their districts to campaign. The remaining time in session will likely be spent debating traditional election year issues such as tax cuts, health care, and Social Security. As a result, there will be little time to consider major environmental issues such as Superfund reform, the Endangered Species Act, and global climate change.

The only chance for any action on these issues would likely be in a smaller piecemeal approach such as a brownfields bill or a measure focusing on liability reform for small businesses and municipalities. Senate staff has recently commented that as a result of not being able to secure enough votes to move Superfund legislation out of the Environment and Public Works Committee in 1999, that the issue is "effectively shelved."

In order to provide Members with an environmental achievement to campaign on, both the House and Senate will likely attempt to pass the "Conservation and Reinvestment Act" (CARA). This legislation would set aside $3 billion a year from Outer Continental Shelf oil royalties in a permanent fund to buy and protect environmentally sensitive land and for other conservation programs. The major opposition to this legislation comes from appropriators and budget writers who are unhappy with provisions that would take the Land and Conservation Fund off-budget. In the House, CARA has 304 cosponsors and in the Senate it has 21.

Further complicating the chance of any significant legislative action are the retirements of two Members who chair committees of significant jurisdiction, House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley (R-VA) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-TX). In addition, the desire of Democratic Members to seek compromise on contentious issues is limited, given that the GOP holds only a five-seat majority in the House. If Democrats were to regain control of the House, it would mean the election of new Democratic chairs for all standing committees, resulting in a new beginning on many environmental issues.

Related Insights