The Environmental Case for Campaign Reform

from Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, Sep/Oct 1994

Table of Contents

  • A Tale of Two Countries
  • Under the Influence As long as politicians are for sale, green will be the color of money only.
  • Why conservatives aren't Conserving Rough riding for Republican environmentalists.
  • Unsung AlliesThe greenest group in Congress is black.
  • A Tale of Two Countries

    by CARL POPE, executive director of the Sierra Club

    As I shuttle back and forth across the land as the Sierra Club's executive director, I often feel as though I live in two countries. One is in Washington, D.C. In this country, many people believe that Americans no longer care about protecting their environment. White House staff tell me that taking environmental leadership would hurt the President. Members of Congress sympathetic to environmental issues tell me that all they hear about is "unfunded mandates," not the quality of rivers, lakes, or drinking water.

    Forty-nine members of the U.S. Senate sign a letter suggesting that they are opposed to any action to prevent toxic run-off from contaminating streams and lakes. Every Republican member of the Senate Environment Committee lines up against a reasoned Superfund proposal; many say they will vote for no bill that holds those who dump waste responsible for cleaning it up. The "national" newspaper, The Washington Post, editorializes that environmental protection is costing too much.

    The other country is where everyone else lives--the folks who elected the administration and the Congress. Out in this greener land, few people claim that a clean environment is too expensive or politically risky. A Montana poll shows that the most popular proposal for that state's wilderness is the one that protects the most land. Newspaper editors in Columbus, Georgia, and Tuskegee, Alabama, thunder against repeal of clean-water mandates. A jury in Alaska finds that Exxon is indeed liable for the devastation it wrought on Prince William Sound. Joined by the Sierra Club, local antitoxics groups all over this country want the Superfund to retain liability for dumpers. In more than 30 separate court cases on private property "takings" issues, the public good wins in all but three.

    There's nothing new in finding a "disconnect" between Washington and the rest of the country. What is different now is that Washington is callously moving away from its citizens. This is the result of two very corrosive forces. First, money talks louder than ever in politics. "This is the first Congress where most members know nothing of politics but the influence of money. They just have no history of bucking their donors," says a staff member of a key committee. "The President simply cannot stand up to money," a senior House Democrat and early Clinton supporter tells me.

    The second force is public alienation. People don't think the federal government represents them, and they don't trust it. The government is supposed to protect them, and they're angry that it doesn't. This is reflected in declining voter turnout, volatile opinion polls on elected leaders, and increased receptiveness to negative campaigning.

    These trends isolate Washington from the rest of the United States. Why vote if the candidates are in hock to the same big contributors? Why vote if the choice is between two sleazy cheats?

    Americans tired of seeing Washington, D.C., as a distant country--and Sierra Club members dismayed by Washington's dearth of environmental leadership--can no longer leave governing to the government. We must commit ourselves to several endeavors.

    First, we must weaken the link between money and politics. Campaign-contribution laws have created the present stranglehold, and new laws can break it. (See "Under the Influence".) At the same time, we should not advance our agenda by tapping into public hostility. People are worried about the future; they may be suspicious of government, but they don't believe that business on its own will take care of tomorrow either. Part of the Sierra Club's task, then, is to revive trust in the potential of government.

    Government, after all, is the engine of democracy. Flawed as it may be at times, we cannot afford to give up on it. Instead, we must demonstrate that, when held accountable, it can and sometimes does provide the security that people demand--not just protection from criminals, but protection from toxic hazards and assaults on the natural world as well. Examples from recent Congresses are the passage of a comprehensive Colorado wilderness bill, legislation eliminating millions of pounds of lead emissions, and the reprieve granted the American bald eagle by the Endangered Species Act. In the latter case, popular pressure on Congress resulted in a law that pulled the eagle back from the brink of extinction. This is how government can and ought to work.

    The country where most of us live is more vibrant, more healthy, and more committed to the future than our own capital. It's time for the Sierra Club to make that energy felt inside the Beltway. It's time for the District of Columbia to rejoin the United States.

    Under the Influence


    Let's say you're in court. The judge walks in; all rise. The opposing attorney approaches the bench and hands his honor a fat wad of bills. The judge stuffs them up his sleeve, then gavels the court into session.

    Outrage! The lawyer is disbarred, the judge disgraced. Case closed.

    Then you go to a ball game. After the anthem, the visiting team's manager gives the umpire a handful of Krugerrands. The ump slips them in his pocket, pulls down his mask, and yells "Play ball!"

    Scandal! The Commissioner bars the manager from the game, and the umpire is busted down to the Peewee League.

    Then you go to a reception to buttonhole your member of Congress. While you're waiting, the lobbyist for the polluting factory you're trying to shut down strolls in, writes your representative a check for $5,000, and walks out with a wink.

    Outrage? Scandal? Hardly--that's just how Washington works today. And when greenbacks govern, green issues are pushed into the background. Despite a nominal friend in the White House and theoretically supportive Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the best environmentalists can do on most issues is to keep Congress from dismantling the gains of the past.

    What's gone wrong? Simply put, Congress is bought and paid for--and not by us. The influence of money today is greater than ever, says Ellen Miller of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. (As one member of Congress famously put it, "My vote isn't for sale, but it can be rented.") The reason is the skyrocketing cost of campaigns. It now takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to win a seat in the House, and millions for the Senate; this year's California Senate race between Dianne Feinstein and Michael Huffington may eat up as much as $50 million.

    The only sources for that kind of money, says Miller, are wealthy contributors, who can individually give $1,000 per candidate (as can their children, spouses, and in-laws), $5,000 through a political action committee (PAC), and unlimited amounts in "soft money" to the political parties. "The system of private financing of elections determines who will run, who will win, and the range of policy options we will have," says Miller. "As long as this system is in place, activists will be at a fundamental disadvantage, and will be fighting the same battles year after year."

    Campaign-finance reform is a critical issue for the Sierra Club, which devotes more resources than any other environmental organization to lobbying Congress. The Club, in fact, contributes roughly half of all pro-environment funds to congressional campaigns: $680,000 in the 1991-92 session, out of a $1.3-million total. That amount is dwarfed, however, by the $21.3 million that energy and natural-resources companies alone kicked in during the same period.

    So why bother at all? The answer is access. "Access is something that money can buy," says Club Political Director Daniel J. Weiss. "The more you can talk to legislators, the more you can influence them, and from that influence come policy decisions." Without a foot in the door, the Club's arguments would often never be heard at all. Yet our voice grows softer with each election. For example, Weiss says, during the 1990 deliberations around the Clean Air Act, the vice-president of General Motors got to meet with a key congressperson for four hours, while the Sierra Club got 30 minutes. Buying influence, he concludes, "is an arms race that the environmental community can never win."

    Agreement is general among public-interest organizations (and most members of Congress, if you can get them off the record) that the system has to change. The question is how. "If we do not reduce the level of campaign spending," warns Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, "I genuinely fear that our experiment in democracy may be doomed."

    Randy Keeler of the Massachusetts-based Working Group on Electoral Democracy identifies three general approaches to reforming the campaign finance system. The first is the incremental strategy exemplified by the reform legislation currently before Congress. While still in flux at press time, it will likely include campaign spending limits, a ban on gifts (no more golf trips), and some weak form of public financing. Its advocates, such as Common Cause, believe that modest reform is better than none. Miller calls it "reshuffling," not reform. "You can plug up some holes in the bucket," she says, "but what we need is a new bucket."

    The second approach is what Keeler calls the "bomb blast" strategy--a state or local ballot initiative that limits all campaign contributions to $100. Bomb blasts have the populist effect of making politicians seek money from a larger number of people, but do nothing about wealthy candidates like Ross Perot and Huffington, who individually bankroll their own campaigns. (This, in fact, is a stumbling block for any kind of reform, since the Supreme Court has ruled that caps on individual expenditures limit free speech.) Finally, Congress is bomb-proof, as its members make their own rules and are unlikely to condemn themselves to spending even more time groveling for funds.

    Which brings us to the whole enchilada: full public financing for any candidate able to meet an arbitrary benchmark of popular support. (In congressional races, for example, candidates might first have to gather 2,000 individual $5 contributions.) Big money's advantage would be eliminated, and environmentalists would finally have a fighting chance. Unfortunately, full public financing is hobbled by its facile characterization as "food stamps for politicians." Keeler admits that "democratic financing of elections" is a long-term strategy, but one that raises the big question: "Who is enfranchised and who is disenfranchised when we make money the medium of political democracy?"

    Keeler estimates that public funding for all elections at all levels would cost approximately $500 million a year. If that sounds like a lot, he suggests, consider the social cost of not doing it. The S&L scandal, for example, which was fueled by campaign contributions to members of the House and Senate banking committees, may end up costing the taxpayers half a trillion dollars-enough, Keeler points out, to finance all congressional elections for the next thousand years. Other high costs of allowing public elections to be privately funded are the enormous subsidies showered on donating industries. In 1992, for example, the oil industry contributed $23 million to electoral campaigns, but got $8.8 billion back in subsidies and tax breaks. The alternative to food stamps for politicians is welfare for industry.

    The Sierra Club supports campaign finance reform, although it has not yet embraced any particular strategy. "Anything that reduces the role of money in politics helps our cause," says Weiss. That done, the Club's endorsements and active volunteers could make an even bigger difference than they do now. "After all," says Weiss, "no one brags about being endorsed by Exxon, but they do brag about being endorsed by the Sierra Club."

    Why Conservatives Aren't Conserving:

    Rough riding for Republican environmentalists.

    by Joan Hamilton

    On the first Earth Day in 1970, Richard Nixon is said to have looked out a White House window at thousands of well-dressed environmentalists and said with satisfaction, "Those are Republicans."

    It was more than wishful thinking. Conservation is, after all, about conserving land, air, and water--in other words, protecting our ecological capital. Some Republicans have been exceptionally good at it. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, established 5 national parks, l 8 national monuments, and 51 federal bird reservations, and added 150 million acres to the national forests before his term ended in 1909. Nixon was no tree-hugger, but even he appointed thoughtful conservationists like Rogers C. B. Morton, Russell Train, and William Ruckelshaus to high positions. As Nixon's presidency slunk to its ignominious end, these appointees could hold their heads high for such admirable acts as stopping the Cross-Florida Barge Canal and banning DDT.

    But times have changed. Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 helped congeal elements of the Republican Party that gladly sought to squander the nation's ecological capital in pursuit of a quick buck. "Roosevelt challenged and KO'd the profiteers," says outdoor columnist and disgruntled Republican Ted Williams. "Reagan hired them."

    Environmentalists hoped for better from George Bush. Bush had an affinity for the out-of-doors that Nixon lacked, but he had so little conviction that he soon caved in to the despoilers. By the end of his term, Bush sounded as callously anti-environmental as Reagan? warning that if Bill Clinton and "Ozone Man" Al Gore were elected, the country would be "up to its neck in spotted owls."

    Today anti-environmentalists occupy all the Republican Ieadership positions in the House and the Senate. Especially in the Senate, hostile attitudes toward conservation predominate, leaving Rooseveltians cowering in the shadows. While Senate Republicans cast pro-environment votes about 40 percent of the time in 1985 and 1986, they do so only 16 percent of the time today, according to the League of Conservation Voters. (Senate Democrats' average hovered around 70 percent in both decades.) All senators scoring 100 percent in the 1993 LCV ratings were Democrats; all scoring 6 percent or less were Republicans.

    While some of the low scores are attributable to long-held Republican ties with big money, partisan politics also drives Republican Ieaders to work simply to discredit a Democratic administration that has an environmentalist image. Even moderate Republicans who have helped environmentalists in the past have grown more intractable and partisan--people such as senators Robert Packwood of Oregon, William Roth, Jr., of Delaware, and David Durenberger of Minnesota. The LCV's scores for each of these senators have dropped by almost 20 points or more since 1990.

    The Sierra Club is left trying to figure out how to get vital legislation passed. Once we could count on convincing roughly two-thirds of the Democrats and one-third of the Republicans to vote our way. That's no longer a reasonable expectation--because the Republican votes aren't there. Even government-shrinking initiatives with intrinsic bipartisan appeal, like reducing federal subsidies to ranchers and miners, have been successfully filibustered by ultraconservative senators--and Democrats and moderate Republicans haven't been able to muster the votes to stop them.

    "The Republicans have become an obstructionist force," concludes a House Natural Resources Committee staffer. "It doesn't matter whether the issue is mining, timber, or endangered species--you don't get any help. When they do offer legislation, it contains whatever industry wants."

    The Republican Party endorsed many of the goals of the environmental movement in Iess-polarized times, but no longer. While environmentalists push for mining reform, the 1992 Republican platform declares the party's "deep and abiding commitment to America's mining industry." While we try to keep population growth in check, Republicans "reject the notion that there are limits to growth." And while we toil to protect the nation's wild, scenic, and biologically rich public-land legacy, their platform calls for reducing "the amount of land owned and controlled by the government, especially in the western states."

    A few dissident Republicans are brave enough to speak out and vote their consciences. "I wanted to throw up about every five minutes in Houston," says Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New York of the strident right-wing speeches at the 1992 convention. A loyal Republican and longtime Bush supporter, Boehlert has been a consistent friend of the environment even when his party has not. So has Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment Committee, who has helped write nearly every environmental law passed during the last 12 years.

    Ironically, Republican voters' values are more like those of the dissidents than those of the leadership. Nine out of ten Republicans declared themselves environmentalists in a 1994 poll conducted for the LCV. In a tougher test of loyalty, a majority of GOP voters (52 percent) still agreed that the environment must be protected even if it meant a loss of jobs in their community, according to a 1993 CBS News/New York Times poll.

    So far, though, the Republican leadership has gotten away with ignoring its own constituency. Perhaps it is cynically betting that voters aren't paying attention, that environmental support will vaporize in the heat of concerns like crime and taxes, or that special-interest money will buy reelection when the time comes. The current gridlock will ease only if voters let these politicians know that none of these suppositions is true.

    Sierra Club political activist Chuck McGrady ruefully remembers helping Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich win his first House seat in 1978. A mere eight years ago, Gingrich, Democratic Representative Henry Waxman (Calif.), and the Sierra Club were working together to pass strong acid rain-control legislation. But around the same time, Gingrich was immersing himself in the Reagan revolution. Today, as minority whip in the House, Gingrich is more partisan attack-dog than environmentalist. An "insistent, impolite, and persistent battering ram" according to The Almanac of American Politics, Gingrich has gone a long way toward destroying the formerly cooperative atmosphere of the House.

    When asked about his own party affiliation, McGrady takes a deep breath. "I used to be a Republican--and I still have Republican leanings," he says. But after years of trying to work with Gingrich and other southern Republicans on environmental issues, McGrady feels betrayed: "Now I'm a registered Democrat." --Joan Hamilton

    Unsung Allies

    The greenest group in Congress is black.

    by Paul Rauber

    Sometimes it's easy to take your best friends for granted. While few white environmentalists would guess it, the best environmental voting record of any interest group in the U.S. Congress belongs to its largest voting bloc--the Congressional Black Caucus. According to the environmental voting scores tabulated by the League of Conservation Voters, the 40 Black Caucus members have an average score of 76 percent--compared to an average Democratic score of 70 percent, and an average Republican score of 24 percent.

    "The Black Caucus should be given its due," says Bunyan Bryant, a professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan and an LCV board member. "Historically, I think, environmental organizations have defined the environment basically as a white issue. Here are congresspeople who time and time again have voted in the right direction, yet they have not received any recognition for their work."

    What accounts for the Black Caucus' verdant voting record? "It's because of the communities we represent," says Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.). "Many have been victimized by individuals and firms that have very little regard for the environment." Black Caucus members generally represent urban and rural low-income areas, which have a disproportionate amount of pollution dumped in their communities. Another factor, says Lewis, is the coming of age of many Black Caucus members in the Civil Rights movement. "Many of us come from a period of struggle," he says. "It's part of our being."

    Now a chief deputy whip in the House, Lewis was elected in 1986 with crucial support from the Sierra Club. More recently, the Club was among the first groups to endorse the bid by Missouri Representative Alan Wheat (a key environmental vote on the House Rules Committee dubbed an "environmental hero" by the LCV) to run for the U.S. Senate; it also strongly backed African-American representatives Lucien Blackwell (D-Pa.) and Craig Washington (D-Texas) against primary challengers this spring.

    While the latter two lost, historically Black Caucus members have had extremely safe seats. This reduces the amount of special-interest money in their election battles (polluters aren't going to waste their dough in hopeless challenges to strong incumbents), allowing them to continue to vote their consciences more often than their colleagues.

    (Redistricting caused Caucus membership to jump from 26 to 40 in 1992; Bryant says it remains to be seen how the new districts will affect the Caucus' remarkable voting record.)

    African-American members of Congress are, unsurprisingly, at the forefront of the fight against environmental racism. (See "A Place at the Table," May/June 1993.) "Remember that all politics is local," says Allen Hill, legislative aide to Representative Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.). "All of the Caucus members have, from personal experience, a strong interest in environmental justice issues." This local focus helps shape the bills they sponsor, like Towns' H.R.2488, which would limit the introduction of new polluting facilities into communities that already have a disproportionate number of them. H.R.1924 by Barbara-Rose Collins (D-Mich.) would require the Centers for Disease Control, when doing its health surveys, to record the ethnic status and income level of those it questions. And John Lewis is sponsoring the Environmental Justice Bill, H.R.2105, which would focus government efforts on protecting public health in the 100 most polluted counties in the country--most of which are predominantly minority.

    And yet Black Caucus members' interests go far beyond their own backyards. Towns' H.R.3706 would ban U.S . exports of toxic waste, such as the attempted shipment last February of mercury wastes to a smelter upriver from the "KwaZulu Homeland" in South Africa. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the powerful Government Operations Subcommittee, is the principal champion of elevating the Environmental Protection Agency to cabinet status. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), representing a state not known for environmental activism, has focused on public transportation, recycling, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. And the Black Caucus as a whole joined the Sierra Club in opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement, which besides weakening environmental protections, robs manufacturing jobs from African-American communities.

    While relations between the Black Caucus and the major environmental organizations are generally warm, there is some sense that the relationship has been less than reciprocal. John Lewis calls on the environmental movement to take up the issues of minority communities--like the cigarette and liquor billboards that target inner-city neighborhoods. "If the environmental movement is going to bring about change," Bryant says, "it can't go it alone. It's going to have to form some coalitions, and probably the most viable movement in this country right now is the environmental justice movement."