Second of two parts
George Nethercutt is an ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich on an issue that’s angering voters and splitting the Republican party: weakening the nation’s environmental laws.
In his first months in Congress, Nethercutt has voted to slash the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s budget 34 percent and roll back clean-air and water regulations.
He’s used his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to take special aim at the EPA, targeted by GOP leaders for some of their largest proposed cuts.
That has angered two prominent EPA directors in the Reagan and Bush administrations, who say the cuts go too far. Recent national polls also show strong support for protecting the environment.
Nethercutt says he isn’t anti-environment, or out to kill the EPA. He just wants to rein in the federal government so it’s friendlier to business, and give more authority to the states.
He says the EPA has a “police state mentality.” He hates the phrase “corporate polluter.”
“I don’t feel there are companies out there just waiting to pollute the air and the water … not in today’s world,” he said.
That shocks environmental groups and the head of the EPA.
“He’s either incredibly naive, or he’s more interested in walking in lockstep with Gingrich than representing his own constituents,” said Bonnie Mager, the Washington Environmental Council’s Spokane director.
The GOP leadership has launched a “concerted, orchestrated effort to roll back 25 years of environmental progress,” said EPA Administrator Carol Browner.
Polluters do exist and the House-proposed 50 percent, $245 million cut in EPA’s enforcement program would “cripple” the agency’s efforts to deal with them, she said.
Under the budget cuts, Washington state would lose $24.8 million for clean water, toxic-waste cleanups and policing polluters.
“The environmental cops won’t be on the beat,” Browner said.
In 1994, the agency investigated 525 cases nationwide of criminal misconduct, including cases of childhood death, tainted food, and falsified laboratory data. EPA also made 875 compliance inspections in Washington state, Browner said.
But Nethercutt has plenty of supporters, including small businessmen, farmers and rural officials in Eastern Washington. They see the EPA as arrogant, inflexible, and too eager to impose costly regulations.
Chelan Mayor Joyce Stewart is fighting a provision of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act that requires the city to build a $9 million water filtration plant.
That would cost Chelan’s 1,100 homeowners $8,100 each. Besides, the plant’s not needed because Lake Chelan’s water is pure, Stewart said.
“My frustration has been that these regulations were written at the federal level as ‘one size fits all.’ Parts of our country need more safe drinking water protection. But why should we be required to filter pure water?” Stewart said.
When Nethercutt talks about EPA’s excesses, he tells stories, Ronald Reagan-style.
There’s Stewart’s story from Chelan. And an Eastern Washington businessman who’s been repeatedly threatened with EPA fines for improper storage of chemicals.
But after using the businessman to rap EPA’s “overzealous” enforcement, Nethercutt declined to identify him. His staff later said the man’s lawyer advised against it.
That’s typical of the new Republicans in Congress, said Gary Bass of OMB Watch, a liberal budget watchdog group.
OMB Watch and a coalition of labor and consumer groups produced a report critical of the GOP’s tendency to legislate by anecdote. The report concludes most of the GOP horror stories don’t hold up.
Nethercutt counters that the Democrats are using anecdotes to block GOP reforms.
“I see it on the floor of the House, primarily when the Democrats stand up - ‘This is Mr. and Mrs. Jones and if we cut program X, they’ll be devastated,”’ he said.
Nethercutt says he’s more moderate on the environment than some of his colleagues, even though his voting record shows he didn’t oppose any of the House GOP cuts.
The cuts would weaken environmental laws that have had bipartisan support since the 1970s: the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and a series of toxic waste and pesticide laws.
In their bid to roll back regulations, Nethercutt and his colleagues used their budget ax to limit the powers of regulatory agencies.
This summer, Nethercutt voted for a 1996 EPA appropriation that cut the agency’s budget by $2.7 billion and contained 17 “riders” - specific directions to EPA not to enforce certain regulations.
The riders would have:
Exempted oil refineries from Clean Air Act emissions standards for the 78,000 tons of toxic pollutants they generate each year.
Cut the EPA’s air pollution permit system, whose goal is cleaner air.
Shielded polluters from prosecution for breaking environmental laws.
Severely limited new water quality standards and blocked efforts to prevent discharges of raw sewage into the nation’s rivers and coastal areas.
Cut all EPA money to enforce wetlands protection.
Prevented EPA from adding new chemicals to annual “community right to know” reports from businesses on what chemicals they store, use and release.
Stopped EPA from suing states or industrial facilities if they perform “self-audits” and agree to correct any violations.
Forced EPA to ignore the Delaney Clause, a rule prohibiting traces of cancer-causing chemicals in processed foods.
Mager met with Nethercutt to protest the riders, especially his vote on the Delaney Clause.
“When I left his office, I felt his attitude was everything will be fine without legislation that safeguards clean air, clean water and healthy food, and we should just trust business,” Mager said.
In September, the more moderate Senate dropped 16 of the 17 House-backed restrictions, and voted to cut EPA’s budget 23 percent. The differences will be reconciled in a conference committee in coming weeks.
The House GOP’s environment strategy may be backfiring, according to several recent national polls.
Americans of both parties overwhelmingly favor strong environmental laws and disapprove of efforts to dismantle them, the polls indicate.
“They’ve gone way too far,” said Rick Taketa of consumer activist Ralph Nader’s U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
US PIRG, the Sierra Club and several environmental groups have collected more than 1 million signatures calling on Congress to preserve environmental laws. They will present the petitions to Gingrich in late October.
Stung by the public backlash, some Republicans are defecting. A new coalition with members in 16 states, Republicans for Environmental Protection, is protesting the Gingrich environmental agenda.
Much of the pressure to cut federal laws is coming from Western GOP freshmen, said Martha Marks, a Republican county commissioner in Riverwoods, Ill.
“The Western states seem to be pushing a misguided caving in to special interests,” said Marks, a founder of the new GOP coalition.
In Congress, a group of GOP moderates led by New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert is defending EPA and fighting the cuts.
Two veterans of Republican administrations also joined the debate last month.
“Current congressional efforts have gone well beyond what the public will support,” said William Reilly, who headed the EPA during the Bush administration.
Browning-Ferris Industries Chairman William Ruckelshaus, EPA chief during the Nixon and Reagan administrations, also defended the EPA.
“It has not helped industry historically to have a weak regulatory agency,” Ruckelshaus said.
President Clinton asked for $7.3 billion for the EPA next year. He has vowed to veto either the House or Senate proposals as inadequate to protect public health, Browner said.
But Nethercutt says he’ll press on to return more power to the states.
“Just because the EPA got cut $2.7 billion (in the House proposal) doesn’t mean we’re going to automatically have unsafe drinking water. The states have existing regulations that meet or exceed the EPA’s,” he said.
Nethercutt blames the media for fueling the public backlash over the GOP’s efforts.
“I watch the media reports that say, since the EPA budget’s reduced, we’re going to see a lot of junk going into rivers and oceans. I don’t believe that.”