Federal Legislative Update
With the Republicans holding only a six-seat majority in the House, Congress has avoided any controversial environmental legislation during both sessions of the 106th Congress. However, many issues have been discussed at the committee level, which may clear the way for serious consideration of several major environmental bills during the 107th Congress. With the exception of a landmark conservation measure, both parties may wait until next year to push an environmental agenda.
On May 11, the House passed H.R. 701, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), by a vote of 315-102. The bill would mandate $1 billion annually for a coastal conservation fund, $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and $350 million for wildlife conservation and education programs. It would also provide annual payments of $575 million for such programs as urban parks, Indian land restoration, and historic preservation. Overall, CARA would set aside $45 billion over the next 15 years to buy land for parks and open spaces, fund wildlife protection and restore damaged coastal areas. One of the bill’s chief sponsors, Congressman George Miller (D-CA), called the legislation the “largest environmental bill for the conservation of American resources in the past 36 years.”
CARA is a top priority for a powerful coalition of interest groups including the nation’s governors, state legislators, and a plethora of environmental and conservation organizations. On Capitol Hill, however, the legislation is strongly opposed by private property advocates, who characterize the bill as a “massive federal land grab.” In addition, appropriators in both the House and Senate are fighting the bill because its funding would be mandatory, rather than subject to yearly votes by Congress. They view the measure as one in a series of attempts to circumvent their committees, which are responsible for writing the thirteen annual spending bills.
The Senate CARA legislation, S. 2123, faces a more difficult road. Although it is cosponsored by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), several Western conservative senators are threatening a filibuster. At a May 18 news conference, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), one of the bill’s sponsors, said supporters are close to having a filibuster-proof majority. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is scheduled to mark up S. 2123 on June 14.
The Administration generally supports the CARA legislation. In a prepared statement, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said, “Twenty or forty years from now, the importance of other legislation may have faded but if a strong [CARA] is produced by this Congress, it will have left a legacy of parks, green space, wildlife habitat, recreation and historic treasures for future generations.”
In other environmental news, the appropriations process began in earnest in May with subcommittee markup of several bills with jurisdiction over conservation and environmental protection funding. On May 17, the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee conducted a markup of the bill that funds, among other things, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Wildlife Refuge system. On May 23, the House VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee marked up the bill that funds the Environmental Protection Agency.
In Everglades news, on May 11, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee conducted a hearing to receive testimony on the Administration’s legislative proposal on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R), Senator Mack (R-FL) and Senator Graham (D-FL) were on hand to testify. Earlier in the year, Committee Chairman Bob Smith (R-NH) indicated that Everglades restoration was one of his top priorities. The hearing came less that a week before Governor Bush signed a bill setting aside $2 billion to help restore the Everglades and asked Congress to make a comparable appropriation. Governor Bush asked Congress to contribute $7.5 billion over 30 years to restore the Everglades. The Administration has included $200 million annually for the project in the reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). WRDA 2000, S. 2437, was introduced by Chairman Smith on behalf of the Administration, on April 13. Under the current WRDA process, the Everglades restoration project would have to compete with other initiatives for funding during the biennial reauthorization. Instead, Governor Bush asked that the Everglades project be considered in a stand-alone bill such as the type being considered by Chairman Smith.
House and Senate leadership is forecasting an October 6 adjournment date in order to allow Members to begin campaigning full time. As a result, the amount of floor time available for non-appropriations legislation becomes more scarce each day.