New Bottom Line Volume 4.5 – Contract with America: Taking Out a Contract on America's Environment

March 6, 1995

In the guise of “getting government off our backs” and cutting the federal bureaucracy and deficit, the “Contract With America” may actually grow that bureaucracy, while costing the tax payers billions. One way it will do this, if the new House majority has its way, is by taking out a contract on the environment.

“The untold environmental protection story in the United States is success,” according to the 170,000 member Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The Clean Air Act has reduced vehicle emissions of hydrocarbons by nearly 50%, despite a massive increase in vehicle miles… and has reduced the release of lead in the air by 98%, mostly as a result of the phase-out of lead in gasoline. The Clean Water Act has increased the percentage of lakes and rivers that are ‘fishable and swimmable’ to more than 2/3. The Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act has led to a 35% decline in total environmental releases of toxic chemicals.”

Yet an attack on these gains, NRDC notes, “is being sped through Congress in record time with little opportunity for scrutiny, being shaped by sound bite…. Most disturbingly, the sponsors claim that H.R.9 is supported by a broad public mandate, despite polls showing continued overwhelming support for strengthening, not weakening, environmental protection.”

In a new report called “Breach of Faith: How the Contract’s Fine Print Undermines America’s Environmental Success” NRDC documents the threat to environmental laws posed by legislation “now being hurried through Congress under the guise of the Contract with America.” For example:

– H.R. 9 requires regulation to be based on economic, risk and scientific analyses, but the peer review panels required to review those analyses will no longer be able to exclude experts with direct conflicts of interest.

– It scales back efforts to collect environmental, health, and safety monitoring, compliance, and enforcement data–this from the same Speaker Gingrich who wants to lead us into the information age.

– While it claims to simplify the regulatory process, H.R.9 creates an endless bureaucratic maze. For example, EPA estimates that it will cost the agency more than $220 million to meet H.R.9’s requirements.

– And in perhaps the most outrageous “innovation” of all , the federal government would be required to pay polluters for complying with the law. If an agency doesn’t have the funds, the President is directed to provide funding from elsewhere–or to pay by handing over federal lands!

This “reverse extortion” is actually quite creative. Let’s see: Government regulations that say I can’t knock over the corner liquor store clearly have an adverse effect on my income. Maybe I can get Congress to pass a law so they’ll pay me to not rob the store. Yeah, that’s it.

It’s a raid on the public treasury–both on our financial treasury, in proposing to force the federal government to use our taxes to pay polluters, and on the “natural capital” represented by our fertile soils, breathable air and drinkable water. Like the S&L deregulation/bailout combination, it will enrich a few at the expense of us all.

There’s a profound distortion of the nature of wealth at the heart of this scheme. The “Contract With America” somehow assumes that it’s not legitimate for people to pool their resources–that’s what government is, after all–to share the costs of common interests; that the infrastructure we socially create to support our individual endeavors is of less value than those endeavors which depend on it; that the living infrastructure given us by nature or god, on which our very lives depend, is of no value at all, since it can’t be reduced to dollars and cents.

Yet most people intuitively know that quality of life is at least as important as quantity of income, even if policymakers seem to have a hard time figuring that out. Fortunately, a growing number of business leaders know this too–recognizing the value of environmental quality both to their businesses, and to their loved ones.

Any manager knows that if you give incentives for the wrong goal, you’re likely to get the wrong results. Well, it’s time for Congress to hear–from businesspeople–that it has no mandate to roll back a quarter-century of environmental gains; that strong, lean environmental laws are a key to US competitiveness; and that you oppose any law that rewards polluters rather than the many US businesses that have made such great strides in reducing and preventing pollution.

[Printed copies of the full report NRDC report, are $7.50 plus $1.45 shipping from: NRDC Publications Department, 40 West 20 Street, New York, NY 10011. U.S. dollars only.]

(c) 1995 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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