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  March/April 1999 Features:
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Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Getting Back to Work

Congress ignores the people at its peril

by Carl Pope

No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," professional curmudgeon H. L. Mencken once said. Maybe so, but a lot of politicians lost their jobs last November by underestimating the public's intelligence. And, if there were any justice, a lot of media pundits would have been canned for the same reason.

Most prominent among the November losers was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who mistakenly assumed that because Americans are cynical about politics they don't expect their government to do anything for them. Newt oversaw a campaign that tried to hide his party's agenda-including its stubborn anti-environmentalism-behind Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, confident that with 30 or 40 new right-wing votes he would no longer have to worry about the principled dissents on environmental matters posed by moderate Republicans like Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.) and Christopher Shays (Conn.).

But despite the Beltway insistence on reducing issues to one-liners and politics to tabloid entertainment, the American people showed themselves to be a lot smarter than the nation's political elite assumes. People want a government that works, that actually does something to improve the air their children breathe, the water they drink, and the land they will some day inherit. So when congressional candidates like Mark Udall in Colorado, Jay Inslee in Washington, and Dennis Moore in Kansas echoed that message-a message buttressed by two years of public education by the Sierra Club-people turned out to vote them into office.

Political job-seekers who underestimated voters' intelligence, on the other hand, were shown the door. Republican senatorial candidate Matt Fong knew California voters value their wild rivers but bet that they couldn't distinguish between pretty pictures and a solid record. So he sat with his family for a photo-op on the American River-one fork of which he wanted to destroy with an unnecessary new dam. He even had the nerve to claim that his opponent, incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer, was "playing politics with the environment." Boxer, an environmental champion whose seat was considered endangered only weeks before the election, won by a 10 percent margin.

Next door, challenger John Ensign (R) assured Nevada voters that, like Senator Harry Reid, he too was opposed to a national nuclear-dump site at Yucca Mountain. Ensign must have thought Nevadans were not smart enough to notice his huge political debt to the Senate's biggest Yucca Mountain boosters, Majority Leader Trent Lott and Idaho's Larry Craig, whom he had invited to raise funds for him. The Sierra Club's Toiyabe Chapter made sure Nevadans heard about that as well as Reid's hard work in opposing the dump site. Reid won.

In North Carolina, Senator Lauch Faircloth (R) counted on voters suffering short-term memory loss. After marginally improving his abysmal voting record in the last year of his six-year term, Faircloth recast himself as a champion of air and water. The Sierra Club ran television ads pointing out Faircloth's complicity in the massive water pollution caused by the huge hog-feeding operations in which he'd invested $19 million. Voters again exercised their intelligence by replacing Faircloth with a new senator, John Edwards.

Faced with a similar predicament in Wisconsin, Republican senatorial candidate Mark Neumann tried to stupefy the voters with a lavishly funded campaign. As a congressman, Neumann had done his best to hand Wisconsin's wetlands over to developers. He figured he could make voters forget about that by raising enough money from special interests, who were already upset about incumbent Democratic Senator Russ Feingold's heroic efforts on behalf of campaign reform. It didn't work. Sierra Club television ads linked Wisconsin's devastating floods to the wetlands destruction advocated by Neumann-and the voters sent Feingold back for another term.

On election day, the national media finally realized that voters were talking about more than Monica. People were worried, it turned out, about the economy, social security, health care-and sprawl, clean water, and nuclear waste. Incredibly, however, the drubbing at the polls in November failed to register with Washington. Despite the unambiguous message from the voters, the lame-duck House impeached a president at the peak of his popularity, and the Senate forged ahead with a trial.

The question as of this writing is whether any legislation, environmental or otherwise, is going to be considered in 1999. The midterm election proved that the public was interested in issues and legislation, yet many in Congress don't seem to care. Nor do they fear any consequences at the polls in the future. "The attention span of Americans is 'Which movie is coming out next month?' " former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson told The New York Times. Cashiered House Speaker Gingrich advised GOP office holders to keep a low profile for the next two years. A "message outreach team," Republican National Committee Chair Jim Nicholson promised, would devise an agenda in time for the elections in the year 2000.

In its fixation on the president, Washington created a political vacuum. As lamentable as this may be, it presents an unprecedented opportunity for the Sierra Club. A country starved for positive politics is ready to respond to our call for more livable cities, clean water, an end to commercial logging of national forests, the protection of wild places, and a better planet for our children. As for those who insult the intelligence of the American public, they will learn the cost of doing so come next election.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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