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 it's one thing to oppose legislation, and another to initiate it. When the Republicans swept into power in the House last year, DeLay was poised to take on the environmental regulators in a new way. He introduced a series of 17 "riders" to the appropriations bills that fund the EPA. Besides slashing the agency's budget by 32 percent, the riders would restrict the EPA's ability to enforce regulations and to create new ones. Some of the riders would restrict the EPA from enforcing the widely disliked vehicle emissions control program. Other provisions would suspend enforcement of water quality standards for the Great Lakes and prevent the enforcement of new standards on toxic air pollutants emitted by oil refineries. Domestic oil and gas industries would not be required to develop accident prevention programs, as required by the Clean Air Act.

Betsy Loyless, the political director of the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, describes DeLay's use of the EPA riders as a "savvy backdoor special-interest tactic."

"It's one thing to hide special interests in the Contract with America," she says, "but it's another thing to debate rolling back the standards for arsenic and radon in people's drinking water. It's a lot easier to roll these actions into these EPA riders, where they're not debated in public. They know that the more public the debate, the more public their ideas of protecting special interests and the less public support they're going to gather."

That's not how DeLay would put it, of course. Writing in an August 15 opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle, the congressman defended the riders by claiming that while they "restrict the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to penalize, they in no way authorize activities that are illegal under current law."

Skeptics may well point out that people and corporations tend not to obey laws that aren't enforced, and the EPA has protested that the riders tell the agency to quit doing its job. Environmentalists have characterized the riders as a "stealth attack."

DeLay has complained that the news media has constantly mischaracterized the riders. But if he's had a hard time persuading the media that his restrictions are harmless, he's had an even harder time persuading some of his fellow Republicans.

Other than the president, DeLay's principal roadblock in his move to cut back the power of the EPA has been a group of 30 to 40 of what DeLay calls Republican "greenies," politicians who are squeamish about throwing out the environmental regulations. That's not necessarily surprising: the people who developed the environmental regulations that DeLay attacks weren't all Democrats. It was Richard Nixon who helped create the EPA, and it was Ronald Reagan who signed the "community right to know" act, which requires large polluters to measure and register their discharges with the government, where anyone can get access to the data.

One of the leaders of the "greenies" is Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York, and when the EPA riders came before the House in September, Boehlert proposed an amendment to abolish them. He won with a 212-206 vote. Then industry lobbyists went to work, and when DeLay brought the issue back to the floor a few days later, Boehlert's amendment was defeated.

Still, realizing that he hadn't completely won his party's heart on the issue, DeLay sent a ten-page letter to House Republicans on September 29 that justified the measures, and insisted that his measures will improve, not roll back, environmental programs. After all, DeLay reminded his colleagues, "our families drink the same water and breathe the same air as the families of Democrats."

But if DeLay's reasoning doesn't always sway his colleagues, he's found another way to build support: raise money. Once it became clear last year that the Republicans had a chance of winning a majority in the House, DeLay set up a "leadership" PAC for Republican challengers called Americans for a Republican Majority. Such PACs allow individuals to donate $5,000, or five times as much as they can give to an individual campaign. When 73 Republican freshmen were swept into House in the 1994 elections, DeLay had sewn up most of their votes for the office of majority whip. In addition to traveling and speaking on their behalf, DeLay, by his own account, had distributed more than $2 million in funds to their campaigns. And nothing solidifies a political debt better.

In the process of fundraising, DeLay has become a coordinator of lobbyists. His most important production so far has been "Project Relief," a business lobbying effort with a PR budget of $500,000. Project Relief included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the oil and chemical industries, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Christian Coalition. The purpose of Project Relief was to pass a 100-day moratorium on all federal rule-making. DeLay worked closely with Project Relief's lobbyist, Bruce Gates, to build Democratic support for the moratorium. Gates matched lobbyists with district-sensitive interests to wavering members. Lobbyists were also installed in a room near the House floor to help members answer the opposition. When the bill passed this February, it was just 14 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

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