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November 1996


Gingrich: Friend or Foe of the Environmental Movement?


by Ryan Sager


"If Speaker Newt Gingrich gets his way, the laws protecting air, water and wildlife may be endangered." So blared a caption in a recent issue of Time magazine.

An ominous warning, to be sure. But is it true?

Time makes two flawed assumptions: First, that current environmental laws are doing a good job of protecting air, water, and wildlife and second, that Speaker Gingrich wants to repeal these laws.

The truth is, Time's claim -- borrowed from its friends in the environmental movement -- says more about the political acumen of the environmental movement than it does about Speaker Gingrich's real environmental positions.

With Newt Gingrich's approval ratings well below 30 percent, environmentalists have been trying to link the Speaker to environmental reform efforts in a cynical attempt to stifle needed reforms. Just as the Democratic National Committee finds it necessary to link Newt Gingrich to Bob Dole to defeat Bob Dole, environmentalists find it necessary to link Newt Gingrich to environmental reforms to defeat these reforms and advance their own agenda.

The irony is that Newt Gingrich frequently supports the environmentalists' agenda. Despite flowery rhetoric about bringing common-sense to environmental legislation and protecting private property rights, Newt Gingrich has consistently perpetuated the status quo. He has maintained a heavy reliance on the command and control mechanisms which have resulted in the gradual deterioration of both the environment and individual rights. A close look at his record tells the story.

Not only has the Speaker failed to propose common-sense environmental legislation, he has actually thwarted such efforts by others: He delayed changes to a dolphin protection law that were sought by tuna fisherman and had been given the green light by Greenpeace; he attempted to block widely popular efforts to repeal the Delaney Clause, an archaic regulation that banned certain food additives premised on the scientific knowledge of the 1950s and 1960s; he blocked a bill from even coming to the floor which would have curbed some of the worst abuses of the Endangered Species Act and made it work better for both people and wildlife; and he opposed a proposal to lift the scientifically unfounded ban of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a refrigerant used in automobile air conditioners.

Then there's the Speaker's record on private property rights. He backed the National Biological Survey, a program set up ostensibly to survey the nation's biological resources, but which has been used to regulate and target private property for government acquisition. He also co-sponsored the American Heritage Trust Act, the single greatest threat to private property during the 101st Congress, which would have made $1 billion in government funds available per year for converting private land into federal land.

Worse yet, during the closing weeks of Bob Dole's tenure as Senate Majority Leader, the Speaker urged Dole put off consideration of the Omnibus Property Rights bill. This bill would have forced the government to compensate property owners for losses in property value resulting from government regulation -- something more than two-thirds of the American people support, according to recent polls. Gingrich's rationale? The vote couldn't be won on the Senate floor. By this logic, the Senate never would have voted on the balanced budget amendment -- a measure many Senators now wish they had voted for as they seek reelection.

It turns out that Speaker Gingrich has always been an environmentalist. During the 1980s, Gingrich received high marks -- particularly for a Republican -- from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) for his environmental positions. For the 1987-1988 legislative session, the LCV gave him a rating of 50%. Perhaps this isn't surprising though, given that the Speaker was once a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club.

And where does Gingrich stand today? He's as green as ever. He recently assembled an environmental task force to serve as the gate keeper for all environmental legislation. Despite the fact that environmental establishment Republicans make up only a small minority of the Republican caucus, the Speaker gave them nearly half of the seats on the task force's steering committee -- ensuring that they would have virtual veto power over all environmental legislation. Furthermore, the Speaker appointed Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) to co-chair the task force -- one of the most rabid environmentalists, Democrat or Republican. Boehlert received a 92% rating from the League of Conservation Voters, giving him a higher environmental score than 53% of the Democrats in Congress.

On May 15, the Speaker's task force released a vision and strategy statement. In the introduction they claim that they will, "offer common sense, flexible and effective approaches that build on consensus, private property ownership, free enterprise, local control, sound scientific evidence and the latest technology."

Such a pledge -- if kept -- would be welcomed by millions of Americans. But given the Speaker's own record and the composition of his task force, the prognosis is not good.

The bottom line is that Speaker Gingrich has more in common with the environmental movement than either he or the movement would like to admit.


Ryan Sager is a research associate with The National Center for Public Policy Research


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