The process of passing laws through the back door

Lawn mowers, smog, Alaska crabs - all on the same bill

Posted: Monday, November 10, 2003

WASHINGTON - What do lawn mowers, smog standards and Alaska crabs have in common?

Each is the subject of an effort in Congress to weaken environmental laws. Each provision is at the top of a wish list of a special interest group in a powerful lawmaker's home state or district. And each lawmaker is trying to win approval of his pet provision by attaching it to legislation that Congress has to pass as it rushes to finish its business for the year and go home for Thanksgiving.

One amendment would block California's plan to toughen rules governing pollution from small engines in such devices as lawn mowers. Another would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to relax state deadlines for meeting smog standards. A third would forbid the government from using funds to study and protect fish and shellfish habitats in the North Pacific.

All three are textbook examples of legislative "riders" - provisions that probably couldn't become law on their own but that might be able to ride to success on the back of unrelated legislation that is already on its way to enactment. Like classic riders, the three provisions have powerful congressional sponsors who hope to bypass the usual process of committee hearings and floor amendments.

The smog rider is attached to a sweeping energy bill, which Congress is under great pressure from President Bush to pass. The other two are hitched to spending bills that Congress must pass to keep the government in business. Votes could come as early as today.

These are not this year's first such provisions. The Interior Department's spending bill, which awaits Bush's signature, carries a provision allowing the renewal of grazing permits on federal lands without environmental review or public comment, and another limiting legal challenges of logging plans in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.

The practice of attaching environmental riders to unrelated legislation enjoyed a burst of popularity in 1995, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades.

Wesley Warren, an environmental economist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, said Congress had considered "literally dozens of anti-environmental riders" until the first two years of the Bush administration, when the pace slowed. "Now it appears to be on the upswing again," said Warren, a former associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Seventeen of them were attached to spending bills in 1995, but President Clinton refused to sign them, which precipitated a partial shutdown of the government. The riders' sponsors eventually backed down.

This year, Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., the chairman of one of the appropriations subcommittees, added a provision to the spending bill that he controls that would prevent California from requiring emissions reductions for small engines.

Bond argues that California's new pollution regulation would cost thousands of jobs in Missouri, where Briggs & Stratton Corp., one of the leading manufacturers of these engines, has two factories. The company has said if California tightens regulations, it would have to overhaul its production facilities, which would force it to move abroad.

Tom Cackette, deputy director of the California Air Resources Board, said if Congress adopts the change, it would mean that "one special interest" had been allowed to take "away a tool we need to clean our air."

Pollution from these small engines is responsible for 340 premature deaths in the state each year, he said. Federal standards require that California make more reductions in smog. Finding ways to cut this much pollution from other sources, which already are aggressively regulated, would be much more expensive, he added.

Air quality officials in other states also oppose the Bond amendment, for fear that their future efforts to tighten regulation of small engines would meet the same fate.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has tried to persuade Bond to remove the measure from the bill that funds the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development and other agencies. "Sen. Bond has refused to budge," she said, "despite the damage his measure will do to California."

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has attached to another spending bill a rider that would prevent the National Marine Fisheries Service from spending any money to study and protect fish habitat in the North Pacific. Stevens' staff said that the fish habitat protection program was written too broadly, creating a risk that court orders could arbitrarily shut down fisheries.

But conservationists said that the program was essential for preserving the natural coral and other fragile sea life that provides habitat for fish.

Stevens' amendment to the bill that funds the departments of Commerce, State and Justice would also change the rules for fishing for large red king crab and smaller, spider-like opilio crab in the North Pacific. Instead of having a race for the crab harvest over a couple of days a year, a certain percentage of the harvest would be promised to individual fishing and processing companies.

Warner Chabot, a vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group, said Stevens' amendment would never win congressional approval as a free-standing bill.

"It's bad law that serves special interests," Chabot said. "If you debated it in a public forum, it wouldn't pass the smell test."

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has attached a measure to the sweeping energy bill moving through Congress that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to extend states' deadlines for meeting air quality standards for ozone or smog. Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, EPA has given some metropolitan areas extensions on meeting ozone standards if a significant portion of their pollution blows in from elsewhere. But several federal courts have ruled against the extensions, sending metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta back to the drawing board to design plans that require tougher air pollution controls.

Now, environmental groups in Texas are considering challenging the two-year extension - until 2007 - that EPA gave Dallas-Fort Worth, the area that Barton represents.

Barton argues that his community and others will be better served if EPA can grant them extensions. "Allowing flexibility and discretion into a good-faith effort can only provide the strongest end results," he said.

But environmentalists warned that the only sure impact of the measure would be dirtier air for people to breathe. "Their health will suffer," said Frank O'Donnell, executive Director of Clean Air Trust, an environmental advocacy group.



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