The Property Rights Betrayal

The Property Rights Betrayal

Speech by David Ridenour, Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research at the Wise Use Leadership Conference, May 3, 1997. Ridenour’s comments are his own views and do not necessarily reflect those of The National Center for Public Policy Research.

Chuck asked me to speak to you today apparently believing every silver lining needs its cloud.

I want to begin by reading to you excerpts of a letter written by Paul Weyrich, President of the Free Congress Foundation and founder of NET-Political NewsTalk Television to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on April 25, one day after Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention — an international treaty with enormous implications not only for private property rights and national sovereignty, but our national security.

“Dear Trent: I write this letter more in sorrow than in anger. Words cannot properly express the depth of feeling that I have concerning your betrayal of your principles and all of us on the Chemical Weapons Convention yesterday… It has given you great pleasure to have crossed your base and you have made an issue out of doing so. You told one of your colleagues that ‘conservatives will get over it.’ Think again. This will never be forgotten… Trent, I have known you since the 1960s. But I no longer consider you a friend. A friend is someone you can trust. I no longer trust you.”

A friend is someone you can trust. Think about that for a moment. By that standard those of us who support private property rights have very few friends in the United States Congress. The Senate’s ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention — which will give foreign inspectors the power to in seize private property — is but the most recent evidence of this.

Perhaps its time that we admit that environmentalists were right all along when they insisted that the Republican-led Senate was captive to powerful corporate special interests. After all, this would go a long way toward explaining why it is that business and industry managed to get two separate votes on Senator Dole’s regulatory reform bill in the 104th Congress and several votes on the now infamous EPA riders — neither of which enjoyed broad public support — but we couldn’t get the Senate to vote even once on the Omnibus Property Rights Act despite widespread public support for taking compensation.

In the new 105th Congress, we’ll be lucky if we can get a property rights bill introduced much less have a vote scheduled.

How did we get to this sorry state of affairs?

The high-water mark for private property rights legislation would have to be March 3, 1995, when the House approved H.R. 925, the Private Property Protection Act, in a 277-148 vote. Unfortunately, it’s been downhill ever since: It was to be a full year before the Omnibus Property Rights Act, a watered-down version of the Private Property Protection Act with a 33% takings trigger, was even considered for Senate floor consideration: In early March of last year, Majority Leader Dole told us that a massive grassroots push was needed on behalf of S. 605 as it would be voted on March 27. March 27 came and went without a vote, despite the tremendous time and effort spent — or should I say wasted — by many of the people in this room. Another vote was to be held in April. That deadline also came and went. Yet another vote was to be held on May 15. Again, the deadline came and went — and this time so did Senator Dole. He resigned from the Senate to devote full-time to his presidential campaign and we were told we would have to wait for a new Majority Leader to be selected before a vote on property rights could be held. Well, at least Dole left for a triumphant cause.

By the end of July it was clear that the new Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, would never schedule a vote on the Omnibus Property Rights Act. By then the bill was only a shadow of its former self, watered down even further to include a 50% trigger for takings compensation instead of a 33% trigger. But still Lott would not schedule a vote. Even the delivery of boxes of waffles to Lott’s office — many courtesy of Chuck Cushman — sent to symbolize the Majority Leader’s waffling on property rights wasn’t enough to get a vote.

Why the reticence? According to the scuttlebutt, a number of Republican Senators facing re-election — Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire among them — asked that the vote be put off until after the elections because they feared being tarred as anti-environment.

Funny, Republican Senators didn’t seem concerned about being labeled “anti-environment” when they voted to include in various stop-gap spending measures and in debt ceiling extension bills the now infamous EPA riders — the legislation most responsible for precipitating the GOP’s environmental image problem. But then, industry and their political action committees wanted these riders. Republican Senators didn’t seem concerned about being labeled “anti-environment” when they tried not once, but two times to obtain cloture for Senator Dole’s regulatory reform bill. But then that’s because the American Petroleum Institute, the National Manufacturers Association, the Chemical Manufacturers Association and other industry giants backed the bill. Republican Senators didn’t seem concerned about being labeled “anti-environment” when they placed Superfund reform as one of their top legislative priorities at the beginning of this year, instead of property rights. But then Superfund is also a top priority for a whole host of corporate special interests — from insurance companies to manufacturers.

As most of you know, property rights was never the political liability for the GOP that some insisted it was. Indeed, it was an asset. You’ve all heard the evidence: A poll conducted by The Polling Company for the Competitive Enterprise Institute found that 64% of the American people supported compensation to property owners when environmental regulations prevent them from using their land. Even Celinda Lake, the Democrat pollster has said, “If one ever lets the Republicans convince voters that either Democrats or the environmental groups are anti-private property, then I think it could be a very dangerous issue. I think it’s one of the most serious issues the environmentalists should worry about because it is such a core value to the people.” It seems everyone — but Republicans — recognized the importance of property rights.

You know, we even fared worse with the Republican Senate than the GOP’s most staunch opponents. We couldn’t get a vote on property rights, but the AFL-CIO — which threw an extra $32 million into the kitty against Republican candidates in the elections — managed to get their top legislative priority: A vote on the minimum wage hike.

What all this teaches us is that Congress is motivated largely by two emotions: greed and fear. Forget about compassion, loyalty, or a strong sense of what is right and wrong — these are all less powerful. Corporate America gets what it wants from Congress through the lure of campaign contributions while others — like the AFL-CIO and the environmental movement — get what they want by making Congressmen fear their wrath.

Unfortunately, in the short term at least, I don’t see any way the property rights movement can appeal to congressional avarice. This means that the only real weapon that we have is fear in its various forms: Fear of rejection, fear of negative publicity, fear of loss of valued allies.

I have a number of ideas on how to do this that I want to share with you:

1.) We must let all those in Congress who call themselves our friends know that our friendship comes with a price. From time to time, we’ve all been called upon to generate support for an initiative of marginal interest to our members or supporters, but of great interest to a particular Member of Congress — and we’ve readily agreed to help. In the future, our help should not come so easily. Congressmen should be asked what they are prepared to do to advance the property rights agenda in return for our help. We’ll find one of two responses: Some will begin to do more to advance the property rights agenda. Others will stop calling to ask for favors. Either response is a net plus for our movement.

2.) We must let all those in Congress who call themselves our friends know that no friendship at all comes with an even higher price. If Republicans continue to stall on property rights legislation, if they continue to demonstrate that they are not our friends, we must be prepared to hit them where it hurts the most — the pocket book. This may mean organizing targeted protests of GOP fundraising events, acting as the skunk at the garden party. Or it could mean organizing donor strikes. The bottom line is that forces much more powerful than U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators — campaign committees — may weigh in on property rights if they believe that stalling the legislation is costing them money.

3.) We must let those who call themselves our friends know that we will not go away, we will not forget. When Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch or Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott speak in our communities, we must remind them — through organization of protests, if necessary — that we will settle for nothing less than a straight up or down vote on a property rights bill on the floor of the Senate. We want a vote — regardless of the outcome — to determine who precisely is for us and who is against us in the Senate.

4.) We must let those who call themselves our friends know that we’ll monitor not just their words but their deeds. There are a number of groups, like ALRA, that have developed scorecards to hold politicians accountable for their votes. But these scorecards don’t hold politicians accountable for the votes that were never scheduled. I suggest that a special leadership section to these scorecards be added — giving a pass or fail score — for legislation that was proposed but bottled up by the Senate leadership and committee chairman. A second way to hold them accountable is to get them on record committing themselves to a property rights vote. Myron has suggested a “Earn Our Trust” coalition letter — a coalition letter that would review the history of the property rights legislation and the many ways Republicans have let the property rights movement and challenge Republicans to “Earn Our Trust” by specifying a date certain by which a property rights bill will be voted on on the Senate floor. A more long-term accountability measure may be to develop a “property rights pledge” for candidates — similar to the Tax Pledge created by Americans for Tax Reform — which would commit politicians to fighting for property rights. Such a pledge could be used to make a campaign issue out of candidates’ property rights transgressions. Finally, we too may wish to establish our own PACs for independent expenditure campaigns against those who oppose property rights.

5.) We must let those who call themselves our friends know that we can find new friends. Some Republicans clearly take the property rights movement, believing that the movement simply has no other place to go. To the extent possible, we should recruit democrat champions of our cause. If Republicans to not want to get the credit for protecting private property rights, perhaps a Democrat will.

6.) We must let those who call themselves our friends know that we’re not beyond shaming them into voting on property rights. Taking a lesson from the Democrats, we too can make all those who oppose property rights look anti-child. We can recruit school children to write letters to Trent Lott explaining why property rights are important to their future and their families’ future. Let Lott look in the face of a child and explain why he won’t schedule a vote on property rights.

There are no doubt some among us who are uncomfortable with the kind of tactics I’ve outlined, but I think we have no other real alternatives. Too often we have chosen to sugar coat the depth of our frustration with our elected officials in the interest of preserving our access to them and this has cost us dearly. Self-censorship is a disservice not only to our movement, but to politicians as they get an unrealistic view of what we’re really thinking and they act according to that distorted world view. At some point we also have to ask ourselves precisely why have we been struggling to maintain access to politicians for if not to argue strenuously for what it is we truly want, what we truly believe in.

There are others of us who no doubt believe that we needn’t sacrifice access, we needn’t use the stick on wayward politicians if we simply settle for incremental reform — reform politicians advise us is possible. While short-term benchmarks are important — indeed vital to our movement — there is a problem when we make incremental reform the goal. Inevitably incremental reform would give way to incremental incremental reform, and so on until we have no goals at all. Politicians would like nothing better than for their advice to lead us to have no demands at all. We cannot allow the tail to wag the dog — politicians to dictate what our goals will be instead of us dictating what their goals will be.

Let me conclude repeating something that Paul Weyrich said in his letter to Trent Lott. He said Lott had told a number of his colleagues of his betrayal on the Chemical Weapons Convention that “conservatives will get over it.” No doubt he thinks the same of the property rights movement of his betrayal of us on property rights legislation last year. We need to send a loud and clear message that we won’t get over it and will never forget.


The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.