Nineteen ninety six was supposed to be the year of the environmental backlash. Scores of Republican lawmakers were supposed to be turned out of office -- perhaps even enough to give the Democrats control of both Houses of Congress -- as retribution for supposedly rolling back 25 years of environmental progress.
To make this environmentalist dream a reality, the environmental establishment spent millions of dollars on the 1996 elections. Two of the largest environmental PACs, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, spent close to $9 million trying to convince the American public that the 104th Congress was the most anti-environmental Congress on record. But the hoped-for environmental backlash didn't occur, with Republicans retaining control of both houses of Congress and expanding their numbers by two in the United States Senate.
An Associated Press exit poll may point to the reason: It found that 52% of the American people believe the federal government should have less of a role in solving the nation's problems compared with 42% who believe the federal government should have a greater role. One can't be for the environmental establishment's agenda and against expanding the role of the federal government. Its just that simple.
The 1996 election was an enormous set-back for the Sierra Club and its friends. The 105th Congress promises to be more hostile to the agenda of the environmental establishment than was the 104th Congress.
While Republicans suffered modest losses in the House of Representatives, some of these losses were suffered by the party's most green-leaning Representatives. Among those losing their seats were Bill Martini (R-NJ), who received a score of 81 (out of a possible 100) on the League of Conservation Voters' (LCV) National Environmental Scorecard; Peter Torkildson (R-MA) who received a score of 69; Peter Blute (R-MA) who received a 42; and Gary Franks (R-CT) who received a 38. The loss of these environmental establishment Republicans may be significant and could even push the GOP-controlled House further away from environmentalists -- albeit only marginally.
In the waning months of the 104th Congress, Congress all but abandoned efforts to move environmental legislation opposed by environmental groups and even approved a few measures the greens supported. The reason? A handful of moderate and liberal Republicans led by Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) demanded a change in direction and GOP leaders feared these Members could bolt the party on key votes -- if not bolt the party altogether. In response, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed Boehlert as co-chairman of a special Republican Task Force, giving him considerable influence, some say even veto authority, over all environmental legislation. But Boehlert holds fewer cards now than he did before the elections and is likely to be taken less seriously by the Republican leadership. Further, even with the GOP losses, Congress would approve such legislative initiatives as the Omnibus Property Rights Act with 250-270 votes.
The situation for environmentalists in the Senate is even more bleak. Not only did Republicans pick up two seats in the Senate, but the Republican membership took a significant step to the right. In nearly every case, each incoming Republican freshman will be more resistant to the environmental establishment than the Senator they replaced, Democrat or Republican: In Arkansas, Tim Hutchinson (LCV rating: 12) will replace David Pryor (LCV rating: 89); in Nebraska, conservative Chuck Hagel (no LCV rating) will replace environmental movement ally Jim Exon (LCV rating: 85); in Kansas, Pat Roberts (LCV rating: 8) will replace Nancy Kassebaum (LCV rating: 30); in Oregon, conservative Gordon Smith (no LCV rating) will replace moderate Mark Hatfield (LCV rating: 11); in Colorado, Wayne Allard (LCV rating: 8) will replace Hank Brown (LCV rating: 11); and in Wyoming, conservative Mike Enzi (no LCV rating) will replace moderate Alan Simpson (LCV rating: 11).
Not all Democrat victories were cause for celebration by the environmental movement either. In the race for New Jersey's Senate seat, the environmental establishment had a modest setback with the election of Democrat Robert Torricelli who had a lower LCV rating than his Republican opponent, Dick Zimmer, 81 compared to 88.
The only good news for environmentalists appears to be the race for South Dakota's Senate seat where Democrat Tim Johnson (LCV rating: 62) outdistanced incumbent Republican Senator Larry Pressler (LCV rating: 4).
Despite the fact that the environmental movement spent millions of dollars to influence the outcome of the 1996 elections, the 105th Congress will be more conservative and less receptive to big government solutions to environmental problems than the Congress that preceeded it. The environmental movement set out to be the mouse that roared, but all Americans heard was a squeak.
David A. Ridenour is Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research.