Legislative riders target environmental protections

July 28, 2011

For environmentalists, it was something to shout about. In a rare show of defiance, 37 House Republicans broke party ranks two days ago and voted with Democrats to strike an amendment from an appropriations bill that forbade the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing any new plant or animal as endangered.

In telephone calls and e-mails, environmentalists at groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife called the vote “historic” and “awesome” in surprised reactions.

But a long list of other amendments aimed at weakening environmental protections at the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency brought them back to Earth.

Nearly 40 amendments would stop the enforcement of water quality standards, abolish rules that protect streams from surface mining, gut a budget to acquire and protect pristine forestland, and slice a portion of money used to operate national parks.

Attaching restrictive provisions called riders to appropriations bills is nothing new. Democrats and Republicans do it to block presidential policies. But the array of riders attached to the current Interior appropriations House bill is the broadest attack on an administration’s environmental agenda since Republicans took control of the House in 1995.

The battle over the bill in many ways captures the stalemate that defines national environmental policy, as Republicans try to block items they see as overreaching, while Democrats work to muster enough support to keep these laws and regulations in place.

Even if the riders are passed by the Republican-controlled House, it is unlikely that the Senate would adopt them wholesale. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, already rejected some of the provisions this year as part of the previous budget fight.

But the political gridlock sets up yet another major battle when the chambers seek to reconcile their bills this fall.

Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, described the situation this way: “We understand it takes a tremendous amount of energy to run in place.”

The appropriations bill would reduce the Land and Water Conservation Fund that acquires land and water for recreation and habitat conservation by 80 percent at the Interior Department.

“Low levels of funding means that many local projects will not see any resources and will have to be scrapped,” according to the National Wildlife Federation.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which was created after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to better regulate safety provisions, would lose $72 million from its budget.

An amendment would strip Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of his power to withdraw mining claims on 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon. In addition, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act that saves habitat for fish and birds would be cut 58 percent.

Nick Loris, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, saw the Republican amendments favorably. “I see it as a retort to the land grab and overzealous regulation that environmentalists have been pushing . . . putting in place so many different regulations that it becomes so costly it stops these companies from going out to explore,” he said.

Environmentalists point out that in recent months, federal courts have ruled that environmental regulators should do more to control harmful chemical emissions, such as greenhouse gases.

With their amendments, Republicans are seeking to overturn court opinions, said David Goldston, director of governmental affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The scope and scale is unprecedented, and we don’t think riders are a way to make policy,” he said. So many amendments “make a government shutdown more likely in the fall,” he said, and “everyone will end up playing a game of chicken” when the budget debate starts in October.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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