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.

But the message has another element: decreased environmental regulation puts money in DeLay's campaign coffers as well. His anti-EPA stance has secured DeLay a warm spot in the hearts of polluting industries and business groups, who have been generous about underwriting him.

That the Republican Contract with America had no environmental platform, and that the idea of reversing environmental laws doesn't fare well in most polls, doesn't seem to faze DeLay. Greg Wetstone, legislative director of Washington's Natural Resources Defense Council, considers DeLay to be "about as extreme as I have ever seen. We have never seen a Congress like this or a congressman like DeLay." But that may not matter. DeLay has found his environmental niche, not only in the staunchly Republican 22nd District, but in Washington's corridors of power. And it's going to take something a hell of a lot stronger than DDT to knock him out of it.

Golf, not politics, was on the minds of many of DeLay's constituents at a late October town meeting in Lake Jackson. But what Tom DeLay wanted to talk about was the Republican revolution. After taking off his suit jacket and handing it to one of his several political aides, DeLay launched into a description of the exhilarating time he has had in Washington as the first Republican majority whip in more than 40 years. The Republicans are fundamentally changing government, DeLay declared, and he was almost lightheaded about it. They've been hauling the liberal pigs from the trough, and the squealing can be heard for miles.

With his helmet of dark brown hair parted as with a knife and a slight paunch hanging over his belt, DeLay is not a particularly charismatic orator. But he was at ease before the crowd. The media, DeLay explained, have distorted the Republicans' environmental program, which is bent on stopping federal bureaucrats from issuing new regulations that go beyond the intent of law. DeLay said he simply wants federal agencies to send new regulations back to Congress for review, but until he gets that requirement passed into law, he's doing a little micromanaging through the budget process.

"I put a piece in the [budget] bill -- rather unusual," DeLay said, "that said the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service could not use any funds to interfere with the permitting process for the Lake Jackson golf course."

It was a good example of how DeLay builds support -- using a local concern to make a national point. DeLay's addendum to the budget bill may well be the savior of a proposed municipal golf course in Lake Jackson. Situated on the Brazos River only a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Jackson and Brazoria County abound with densely thicketed forests of hardwood trees. A spreading live oak adorns the town's seal, and it is among just such live oaks that Lake Jackson's citizens want to build a municipal golf course.

Five years ago, the city bought a 400-acre tract of undeveloped woods on the flood plain of the Brazos. But there was a hitch: the golf course site contains wetlands, one of the most hotly debated terms in the EPA's rule book, and one with major implications for developers. The EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service have also designated the golf course site as Columbia Bottomlands -- prime habitat and a resting place for tens of thousands of neotropical birds that migrate from Central and South America across the Gulf of Mexico every spring. To professional wildlife managers, the hardwood forests of Brazoria County are a resource of international importance. But to DeLay, the golf course has been a perfect venue for him to display his new power as majority whip.

Since U.S. Fish and Wildlife had been so intransigent about the course, DeLay added language to the budget bill that would prevent the service from developing a wildlife refuge in Brazoria County, one that had been in the planning stages for years. To environmentalists, the action was simply an act of retaliation against -- or blackmail of -- Fish and Wildlife. The political tit for tat appears clear: give DeLay the golf course, and he'll allow the wildlife refuge.

DeLay has rallied the leaders of Lake Jackson and Brazoria County to his position, claiming fear of a federal land grab that could stifle development and take property from the county tax roll. Supporters of the wildlife refuge have pointed out that it would be created with land from owners who want to sell their property, and that this is private land that the government would then open to the public. They also point out that federal funds from Duck Stamps would flow into the county to make up for the loss of local property tax revenues.

But to the leaders of Lake Jackson, there's something emotionally satisfying in running the federal government out of local affairs, even if it looks like cutting off your nose to spite your face. What sounds good to Tom DeLay sounds good to the burghers of Lake Jackson: local control of local resources. But the question is, if they get control, how wisely will they use it? If DeLay has his way, we may be headed toward finding out.

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