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  November/December 2006
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Ways & Means: Candid Congressmen
What if they said what they're really thinking?
By Carl Pope
November/December 2006

Carl Pope It must be a comfort to President George W. Bush that there is at least one institution in Washington, D.C., less popular than himself: the U.S. Congress. While the president's approval rating hovers in the 30s, Congress's popularity regularly ranks in the 20s.

And with good reason. The list of environmental crises needing urgent attention is long and growing: global warming, tens of thousands dying of pollution from coal-burning power plants, and many others. Problem is, doing something serious about such issues would discomfit the same corporate interests that put these politicians in power.

So the leadership in Congress has perfected the art of doing nothing. Members hold occasional hearings, ignore public comments, and then commission further studies on issues already examined to death--all the while looking very grave and concerned and determined to take decisive action at some unspecified time in the future.

Every once in a while, though, someone departs from the script. In August, for example, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) declared that if he were reelected, nothing would be done about global warming because "the information is not adequate yet for us to do anything meaningful." (Blunt's constituents, sweltering at the time in a blistering heat wave, may have disagreed. One elderly woman died in the 103-degree heat while looking for her lost dog.)

What if the rest of Blunt's colleagues in the congressional leadership were equally candid about their future plans? Based on their records thus far, they might say things like this:

SENATOR CONRAD BURNS (R-Mont.) made it clear that as long as he's in charge of the subcommittee that oversees EPA appropriations, "nothing meaningful will be done" to fund the $388 billion needed to keep sewage out of our rivers, lakes, and drinking water. "Americans can buy bottled water with their tax cuts," he suggested.

If REPRESENTATIVE PETE KING (R-N.Y.) comes back as chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, he pledged, "you can forget about" requiring nuclear facilities and chemical plants to guard against terrorist attacks. "If these patriotic companies are willing to risk their facilities in the fight against terrorism," King said, "we should applaud their bravery."

"Don't hold your breath" waiting for coal-fired power plants to be ordered to clean up their mercury emissions, said REPRESENTATIVE JOE BARTON (R-Tex.), chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. Told that eating mercury-tainted fish could diminish intelligence, Barton scoffed. "Voters are plenty smart. They keep electing me, don't they?"

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLES TAYLOR (R-N.C.), chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, promised that U.S. Forest Service resources would not be redirected to protecting rural communities on his watch. "We're going to stay the course: Our emphasis will remain on subsidizing big timber companies."

SENATOR TED STEVENS (R-Alaska) assured voters that while he has control of the Senate appropriations process, federal transportation dollars will continue to flow to more bridges and highways to nowhere. "We have more nowhere in Alaska than any other state," Stevens said, "and we need access to every bit of it."

REPRESENTATIVE RICHARD POMBO (R-Calif.), chair of the Committee on Resources, said that under his continued leadership, there is no chance of any new critical habitat for endangered species: "It's time those hapless toads learned how to get along with the rest of us."

SENATOR PETE DOMENICI (R-N.Mex.), chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, promised to keep pressing for drilling along the nation's coasts. Protecting scenic beaches, Domenici said, is unfair to states like New Mexico, which doesn't have any. "Why should the burden fall on us? Now it's Florida's turn."

SENATOR JAMES INHOFE (R-Okla.) swore that as long as he holds the gavel of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, "we're not going to worry" about protecting children from pesticide residues in their food. "Now that Tom DeLay is gone," Inhofe added, "it's up to Oklahoma to stand tall for DDT."

You think I'm joking? After two more years of inaction, I doubt anyone will be laughing.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail

photo by Lori Eanes, used with permission

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