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The Planet

The Planet
October 1998 Volume 5, Number 8

Night Falls on Congress

By Kathryn Hohmann Environmental Quality Program Director

Last-minute deals are cut. Agreements are written on the backs of envelopes. It is a time to keep vigilant - and keep your fingers crossed.

Autumn in Washington is a gorgeous season, with crisp days and chilly nights. But as the days grow shorter and the seasons turn toward December, there's less and less light. And in Washington, agreements struck in darkened back-rooms can deal away our birthrights of clean air, clean water and wild places. Maybe the old federal judge who said "sunshine is the best disinfectant" was wishing for a shorter legislative session in Washington.

When Congress adjourned for the August recess, environmentalists in Washington cheered - but knew their work wasn't over. In fact, the real "silly season" in the capital often occurs in the very last days before the wrap-up of a Congress. That's when a round-the-clock vigil is needed.

During the closing days of a Congress it becomes almost impossible to track what is happening, even for those of us whose job it is to do so. Last-minute deals are cut. Agreements are written on the backs of envelopes.

We don't always know what's being debated and voted on because Congressional leaders often don't let us see the drafts of bills. In this chaotic time, members of Congress sometimes barely know what they're voting on.

They procrastinate, waiting until the final hour to make their decisions. And when they reach an impasse on one bill, they jump to debate on another one. It's like watching a game of badminton, they go back and forth between one bill and another. It is a time to keep vigilant - and to keep your fingers crossed.

If you're a regular Planet reader, you already know about the anti-environmental "riders" we've been fighting. If not, here's the short course: Powerful members of Congress, aware that their anti-environmental notions won't pass muster if subjected to fair votes on the House or Senate floor, attach riders to larger pieces of legislation, like appropriations bills that have to pass to keep the government running. One rider would force a 10-year delay for a program to clean up smog in our national parks. Another would allow a road to be built through a wildlife refuge in southwest Alaska. Still another would prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from keeping mercury out of our water.

Because pro-environmental legislators demanded votes on stripping some of the riders, we are able to hold elected officials accountable for their votes on these measures. We've used the August recess to speak out at town meetings and public events. And we called on President Clinton to veto bills with the sneaky measures still attached.

This is also the time of year that ominous, omnibus packages are put together. These "something-for-everyone" bills often tempt the support of pro- environmental legislators by offering some friendly provisions, like disaster relief, at the price of environmental destruction elsewhere.

How do you play a part? It's critical that people outside the Beltway help to shed light on what's going on in Washington. First, stay informed up until the very end of the 105th Congress, because until the gavel comes down, we'll be fighting. Read the Sierra Club Action Daily on e-mail to find out what's going on in Washington; that way, you can call your senators and representative before they cast those final votes. The Daily also helps you track the votes as they happen, so you'll know how your state's delegation is doing. (Click here for instructions on how to subscribe to the Sierra Club Action Daily)

And don't forget that a letter to the editor about your elected officials' records is a simple and effective way of telling others just what's at stake in Washington as the Congress comes to a close.

Finally, use the polling booth to show your elected officials what you think. Register to vote and turn out on Election Day. That's your chance to have the last word on the anti-environmental tactics of the 105th Congress. In the words of former Rep. Morris Udall, if your elected official hasn't seen the light, you can show them the heat.
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