The Exterminator

Tom DeLay, the bug man from Sugar Land, has always despised environmental regulation. Now, as House majority whip, he's in a position to do something about it.

For a congressman who wants to get an idea across, there are few pulpits more bully than that of a House committee hearing. Tom DeLay, the six-term U.S. representative from Sugar Land, is fully aware of that, and so on the morning of September 20, he sat before a microphone in a hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building ready to present his objections to an international ban on CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons.

DeLay has sponsored eight different bills to amend the 1990 Clean Air Act, and one of his targets has been the Act's proposed ban on Freon and other CFCs, which scientists around the globe have long claimed are partly responsible for a growing hole in the ozone layer. Now, facing the dais on which sat his colleagues from the House Science subcommittee, DeLay read from a statement saying that the talk of ozone depletion is nothing more than a "media scare" and that "it is clear that man-made CFCs do not have as much of an effect on the atmosphere as normal climatic fluctuations." He lamented the cost of the chemical that will replace CFCs in air conditioning and refrigeration units. He told the committee that "there is another school of thought that is not tied to Chicken Little approaches to the environment."

DeLay was sailing along, suggesting reading material on environmental terrorism and proclaiming his background as a scientist, when he said something that seemed to indicate that he hadn't read what many consider to be the basic study on ozone depletion. Suddenly, Congresswoman Lynn Rivers, a first-term Democrat from Michigan, posed a question. She held up a glossy copy of a report titled Scientific Assessment on Ozone Depletion. The report featured a satellite photograph of the ozone hole over Antarctica and the seals of NASA, which is headquartered in DeLay's own district, the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization. The study represented the consensus of 200 scientists from around the world, and had been reviewed by another 200 scientists. Seven months earlier, when it had been published, the Environmental Protection Agency had sent out thousands of free copies of it through an ozone information hot line.

What Representative Rivers wanted to know was, if DeLay was so interested in the ozone issue, and if he was upset that scientists didn't listen to both sides of a question, why hadn't he read "the most important study on this issue, the ... broadest, the one that has worldwide input?"

DeLay, as it happens, didn't have much of an answer. Still, being caught in an act of outrageous rhetoric has never done much to slow DeLay down. (And his comeuppance from Rivers received little attention outside the hearing room.) If there is one thing Tom DeLay truly loves besides playing golf, it is attacking the conclusions of environmental scientists. And because the former exterminator from Sugar Land is the majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives -- and therefore one of the most powerful politicians in Congress -- his attacks have clout.

Rachel Carson's conclusion in Silent Spring that DDT was destroying such birds as the bald eagle and the brown pelican by thinning their eggshells? Wrong, insists DeLay, who claims that two million people a year die of malaria because DDT has been banned globally. (And never mind that a team of international scientists has attributed the rising toll of malaria to the destruction of tropical rain forests, which produces new breeding grounds for mosquitoes.)

Concerned over acid rain killing trees and lakes in the Northeast? It's a simple issue, says DeLay, and one Washington only made worse by ignoring the conclusions of its own scientists. There was no need to spend tens of millions of dollars on cleaning up smokestacks in the Midwest, DeLay insists. The whole problem could have been solved by pouring half a million dollars' worth of lime in the northeastern lakes.

DeLay does not flinch in his denunciations. The committee who awarded the Nobel Prize to the two scientists who discovered the ozone problem are a bunch of Swedish environmental extremists, he says, and as for the EPA, that's nothing more than a "Gestapo organization."

Invoking two pet phrases, "common sense and sound science," Delay insists that he's not a "crazy bug killer from Houston," but that he simply wants to rein in environmental overregulation. He points to his degree in biology from the University of Houston, and his business experience as a professional exterminator, as proof that he has both the scientific and business expertise to know what he's talking about. Indeed, as DeLay has often said, it was frustration with the EPA's regulation of his exterminating business that originally drove him into politics. When he gets going, the congressman can offer horror story after horror story of regulatory excess -- many of them, as it happens, provided by researchers from the Heritage Society, a conservative Washington think tank.

And DeLay's rationale for his attack on environmental laws sounds selfless: government regulation raises the cost of everything consumers buy, and if you decrease environmental regulation, you put money in the pockets of average people. In the current anti-government climate, that's a message many people are interested in hearing.

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