We have all been greatly entertained by stories from London about reforms in the ancient House of Lords. A Labor government slashed its membership, and peers wishing to hold on to their hereditary perks a bit longer had to campaign for survival. Among the promises, as recounted by The Post's T.R. Reid: Baroness Strange pledged a daily delivery of flowers from her gardens, and Lord Monckton of Brenchley proposed a muzzling of pet cats to "stop the agonizing torture of mice and small birds."
Laugh if you will, but you would still have to say that the British House of Lords has a better record than our own House of Lords, the U.S. Senate. Their lords at least have done no cosmic harm. You cannot say as much for the Senate, which killed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and failed on guns and patients' rights.
Now, the Senate has been shown up by the local equivalent of the House of Commons, the House of Representatives, often condescendingly referred to as "the other body." While the Senate was wringing its hands at the prospect of a filibuster from Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), its most implacable member, House members--and Republicans at that--stood up and said no to his environmentally outrageous demand.
The Byrd rider required a two-year delay of a federal judge's decision against West Virginia's current mining practice of lopping off mountain tops and rolling them down into the valleys and streams of Byrd's native state. Byrd, being wily and willful, not to mention the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, usually gets his way.
Charles H. Haden II, a Republican U.S. District judge, ruled in favor of a West Virginia citizens group that had protested the despoiling of the landscape, polluting of rivers and damaging of homes. The judge also pointed out that leveling the mountain tops was illegal. West Virginia, with Washington's acquiescence, has engaged in mountain-top mining for decades, although Congress had passed laws restricting it. The judge said it had to stop, but stayed his decision to give the appeals court a chance to rule. That was not enough for Byrd.
His rider was as egregious as a ransom note. But no one in the Senate wanted to tell Byrd that he had gone too far. Minority Leader Tom Daschle announced that the White House would negotiate with Byrd, who was lobbying to make the rider part of this year's budget bill. The White House spoke of placating Byrd with a compromise that would preserve the "status quo." The environmentalists set up a clamor. Carolyn Johnson of the Citizens Coal Council, which brought the lawsuit, sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff John Podesta in which she wrote, "The status quo is in flagrant violation of the laws and increasing damage to the environment."
The Senate hunkered down to watch anxiously what bill Byrd would use to pin the tail on the donkey. But House Republican moderates, who had every reason to wonder if they matter at all, stepped in and changed the politics of the situation. Twenty of them wrote a strong letter to the president, pointing out that they had supported him when he fought Republican riders and that Byrd's rider would produce an "unprecedented special interest loophole in the Clean Water Act."
The letter writing was organized by Reps. Chris Shays of Connecticut and Rick Lazio of New York, who joined three other Republicans for a fervent news conference at which they pointed out that this Democratic rider would mean that West Virginia would have its own federal environmental laws. Rep. Brian Bilbray of California said, "The last time I checked, West Virginia is one of the sovereign states of the American union."
The White House issued a veto threat.
At a subsequent all-night session, the House passed its version of an omnibus spending bill with no Byrd provision.
The Republican leadership, sensing for once a remarkable opening, went on television to crow. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who has never been known as a tree hugger, gleefully claimed that Republicans had stayed Democratic mountain choppers. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay noted that the House had turned green.
Thursday night, the Senate voted 56 to 33 for the Byrd rider, which was attached to a bill that was going nowhere. The indefatigable environmental lobbyists finally began to breathe again.
The 33 who voted against Byrd will doubtless pay for their defiance when they need a nod from the Appropriations Committee.
But for now, they have to be grateful that the House has saved the lordly Senate from total disgrace on the environment.