Published February 1996
At the very time Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was attending a Western States Republican Leadership Conference late last year saluting the "strong desire across the whole West for... taking power out of Washington and returning it back home" he was working behind the scenes to make sure the folks out West didn't get too much power. At the urging of moderate and liberal eastern Republicans, Mr. Gingrich put-off reform of the nation's most excessive environmental laws. Given the importance of these reforms to Western states and to the re-election chances of Western Republican House members, we need no longer wonder about Newt Gingrich's future political aspirations: He's running for House Minority Leader.
Speaker Gingrich's retreat on environmental issues is said to be linked to a growing public backlash against the GOP's regulatory reform agenda. This is unlikely, given that only 15% of Americans have ever voted against a candidate because of his or her vote on an environmental issue, according to a March/April Times-Mirror poll. The truth is, what appears to be retreat is actually an advance of the Speaker's own decidedly green agenda. Mr. Gingrich considers himself to be a strong environmentalist. In the last Congress, for example, Mr. Gingrich co-sponsored legislation that would create a National Institute on the Environment (NIE) -- an agency that would ostensibly seek "to improve the scientific basis for environmental decision-making," but would inevitably devolve into yet another government-funded body requiring the "discovery" of new environmental risks -- both real and imagined -- to justify its existence and its government financing. The NIE would thus provide further impetus to more onerous and unnecessary regulation.
The Speaker has also voiced support for the concept of a national biological survey -- a comprehensive survey of the nation's biological resources for the purpose of protecting and managing the natural resources. Private property owners, particularly Western property owners, fear such a survey because the federal government could use the information it collects to regulate or target for acquisition privately-held property it deems biologically or nationally "significant." Though Speaker Gingrich has distanced himself from the agency set up by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to conduct such surveys, the National Biological Service (NBS), the fact that the NBS survived the House budget ax over the objections of Western House members certainly casts doubt on the Speaker's position.
More recent readings of Speaker Gingrich's positions on environmental issues are equally disturbing. According to Representative Sherwood Boehlert, the liberal New York Republican who led the fight against the Clean Water Act reforms the House approved early this year, the Speaker supported his efforts to weaken the reform measure and has even named him co-chair of a new House task force on the environment.
The last straw for Westerners may have come late last year when an aide to Speaker Gingrich suggested that an Endangered Species Act reform bill crafted by Representatives Richard Pombo (R-CA) and Don Young (R-AK) -- which western Representatives like Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) and John Shadegg (R-AZ) believed was too timid already -- was too extreme and had to be weakened further if a floor vote was to be permitted. The criticism came despite that fact that Mr. Young and Mr. Pombo incorporated provisions in their bill addressing each of the Speaker's concerns as they arose, earning the two men criticism from grassroots property rights activists in the process.
It's not as though the Young-Pombo Endangered Species bill was particularly revolutionary. If it can be legitimately criticized, it is for not being bold enough. Under the Young-Pombo reform measure, property owners would still live under the threat -- albeit a somewhat diminished threat -- that government could place restrictions on how they use their land. The history of the Endangered Species Act shows us that where such uncertainty in property rights exists, land owners have the every incentive to extract whatever resources their land possesses while they still have some control over it. Ironically, it's not just property owners that suffer, but the wildlife that depend on the habitat their land offers.
Speaker Gingrich is now working on a new "vision," a new framework for the environment -- a policy to bridge the gap between "green" and reformist Republicans. Unless he wants to become House Minority Leader, this new framework must break the impasse on important environmental issues like the Endangered Species Act and offer immediate relief to those suffering in the West.