by Carl Pope
"April is the cruellest month," observed T.S. Eliot. The
leaders of the 104th Congress - though struggling to put a
happy face on ignominious defeat - would have to agree. For
the Sierra Club, though, this past April ranks as one of the
most glorious months ever.
The kickoff to Earth Week, April 13, saw the single largest
grassroots mobilization in the Club's entire history - the
culmination of an 18-month-long campaign to inform, educate
and involve the American people in defeating Congress' War
on the Environment. Citizens (Club members and nonmembers
alike) turned out en masse to rally and to go door-to-door
with the Club's message. In Denver, 150 volunteers were met
by the lieutenant governor in a freezing rain. In Arkansas,
21,000 families in Little Rock and Fayetteville were touched
by the biggest environmental event in the state's history.
In Sioux Falls, S.D. - a town with just 86 Club members -
135 volunteers held a rally that drew
all the local media. Great Falls, Mont., with 54 Club
members, managed 55 volunteers and media coverage.
But the media weren't the primary messengers. We were. More
than 10,000 volunteers in 100 cities reached out to their
neighbors with Sierra Club doorhangers exhorting them to
"Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our
Future." In Minneapolis, 200 volunteers reached 30,000
households. In the San Francisco Bay Area, volunteers
organized by the local chapter distributed 20,000.
Marylanders got to 41,000 families. You get the idea.
Between the extensive press coverage, our paid radio spots,
and our direct outreach efforts, perhaps 25 million
Americans heard the Club's message in that one week alone.
Ten days later, it showed. After 10 months of wrangling
between Congress and the Clinton administration over funding
levels and environmental enforcement, we hit political
paydirt: Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and the rest of the
congressional leadership blinked. No, more than blinked.
From the earliest days of this Congress it's been clear that
the greatest peril lurked in the leadership's plans to
undercut environmental programs by defunding them, or by
inserting riders into fiscal bills to block their
enforcement. "Logging without laws," the so-called salvage
rider that passed last June, was their first and, as it
turned out, their main success. But as 1995 went on the '96
appropriations bills, the debt ceiling bill, and eventually
even the continuing resolutions - which kept the government
operational, for the most part, in the absence of a budget -
were loaded up with dozens of anti-environmental riders.
Seventeen were aimed at the EPA alone.
Twice the government was shut down. Repeatedly Bill Clinton
vowed to veto fiscal bills that would undermine
environmental protection. Repeatedly he was pressured from
inside and outside his administration to compromise. Over
and over the Club and its allies rallied the American people
to urge the president to stand firm. By the end, major
newspapers habitually ran editorials decrying Congress'
backdoor attacks on environmental enforcement.
The Club and its allies used every known tool of mass
mobilization, and invented a few new ones for good measure.
Public opinion turned against the riders, the new Congress
and, increasingly, against the GOP itself. Republican
advisers and pollsters urged the leadership to rethink its
anti-environmental posture. In response, Gingrich appeared
on …RLarry King Live" with a boa constrictor, while many of
his colleagues planted trees and staged photo ops at
The posing was in vain. Clinton stood his ground, and
Congress relented. It agreed to restore virtually all the
environmental funding sought by the White House, and to
eliminate 15 of the 17 EPA riders. Only a single Interior
Department rider, one allowing construction of a huge
telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, survived.
U.S. politics does not lend itself to pure outcomes, and the
final budget deal is no different. Its most grievous flaw is
that it leaves in place last summer's salvage logging rider.
But it is nonetheless a monumental defeat for the polluters
and special interests who bought the last election, and for
the congressional leaders they picked to push their agenda.
Considering the price they paid for the privilege of
despoiling America's environment, polluters can only regard
this Congress as a billion-dollar lemon.
Money and ideology are a persistent combination, of course,
and the extremists will be back. What is most impressive
about our budget victory is our own persistence in the face
of seemingly overwhelming odds - how, time and again over
the past year-and-a-half, the Sierra Club came up with new
energy, new strategies and new ways to reach out and rally
the American people.
More than that, we've done it in a way that builds for the
future. The Club is far stronger today than we were 18
months ago. The public is more aware. The press is better
informed. In some regions of the country we have thousands
of new volunteers. We've compiled detailed voting records
for the members of the 104th Congress, and we know how to
use them - we're far more sophisticated about communicating
with the public than ever before.
The Sierra Club can often be frustrating for volunteers and
staff alike. And admittedly, a big-tent, broad-spectrum
organization like the Club needs better planning, more
meticulous communication, and increased emphasis on respect
and civility if we're to thrive and succeed. But when it all
comes together, as it has in recent weeks, it's hard not to
sit back and marvel.
So let's take a moment to pat ourselves on the back - and
then get back to work.
By continuing what we started less than two years ago, we
can ensure that, for polluters and their friends in
Congress, November '96 will be an even crueller month than
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