Federal Legislative Update
For months, Congressional leadership has targeted October 6 as the adjournment date for the 106th Congress. Given the number of unfinished required federal spending bills, it is unclear if Congress will be able to meet that goal. What is clear, however, is that as both political parties plan their budget endgames, several environmental and conservation issues will come into play.
President Clinton has recently announced that he has elevated the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), H.R. 701, to top-tier status. He has instructed his staff to make this issue one of the Administration’s priorities as they head into budget negotiations with Congress. The current CARA legislation would authorize almost $3 billion a year, for 15 years to acquire new land and restore damaged areas. H.R. 701 passed the House in May and was reported by the Senate committee of jurisdiction in July. The President’s insistence on this legislation will pose significant challenges to the leadership on Capitol Hill. CARA is supported by Senate Majority Leader Lott (R-MS) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), but it is strongly opposed by conservative GOP appropriators who fear the bill would create a permanent entitlement program for conservation spending.
With the death of Senator John Chafee (R-RI) in October 1999, Congress lost not only a true statesmen, but also one of the strongest champions of comprehensive Superfund reform. As a result, some members are attempting to reach an agreement on a narrow brownfields and small business liability exemption bill.
In the House, Commerce Finance and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Michael Oxley (R-OH) and Transportation and Infrastructure Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) have agreed on a deal. They have introduced H.R. 5175, a bill that would exempt companies with 100 or fewer employees and $3 million or less in annual gross revenue from liability for past treatment of hazardous materials. The exemption would apply only if the treatment or disposal was not more than 110 gallons or 200 pounds. A business could also be exempt if it disposed only municipal solid waste. Complicating matters, however, is a pledge from Majority Leader Lott to oppose any piecemeal changes to the Superfund program.
Congress has yet to act on funding legislation for Everglades restoration. In June, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee approved S. 2796, the “Water Resources Development Act of 2000.” Included in this bill is authorization for $1.3 billion for the first phase of a 38-year, $7.7 billion project to restore the Everglades ecosystem. The Senate leadership appears to be ready to bring the legislation to the floor. The House has yet to act on this issue. In a related development, on September 20, the EPW Committee conducted a hearing on a General Accounting Office (GAO) report on Everglades water quality.
Election day is November 7, 2000. With Republicans holding a narrow majority in Congress and the Presidential race too close to call, the environmental agenda for the next few years will, in large part, be determined by what occurs at the ballot box.