Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Political Travesty
distributed 2/14/03 - ©2003

The action alerts came out early on Wednesday morning. By Thursday evening, it was all over.

Yesterday (Feb. 13), the US House and Senate passed the Omnibus Budget Bill, which provides funding for every part of the government except the Pentagon.

Wednesday's urgent action alerts spread the word that last-minute additions to the legislation -- worked out in closed-door committee meetings -- added anti-environmental "riders" to the budget bill. Those riders were tacked onto the bill by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who chairs the Appropriations Committee that drafted the legislation.

The Anchorage Daily News reported on the vote in a story headlined, House good to Stevens. Their reports says:

The legislation would allow exploratory drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and open new sections of national forests to logging. It would block court or administrative review of any regulations the U.S. Forest Service might announce for the Tongass National Forest. It also signed off on a measure to bar environmental lawsuits over reissuing permits for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

The rider also allows the widespread expansion of pilot programs that enlist commercial loggers to thin out fire-prone forests (a very controversial proposal that was discussed in this newsletter two weeks ago).

Those provisions were added to the bill just a few days before the entire budget package came up for a vote. The Stevens riders were drafted without any public review in open committee hearings.

The riders are part of a bill that was 3,000 pages long when it was presented to the legislators. It is more than a foot thick, and weighs over 30 pounds. Many of those who voted on the bill had never read it.

The appropriations bill was an attractive place to attach riders, because it was a "must pass" piece of legislation. Few members of Congress would vote against the comprehensive bill on the basis of a few details. And so the final bill included funding for thousands of legislator's "pet projects." Citizens Against Government Waste estimated that the budget bill could contain $18 to 20 billion in such earmarked projects.

The New York Times described some of the dynamics of this year's budget process:

Written mainly in private after Congress gave up trying to pass spending measures last fall, the bill was described by Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, as the "biggest back-room deal" in the history of congressional spending.

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Those of us who are working for a just and sustainable society have to pay attention to the US Congress. Through the budget process and the passing of laws, that body has an enormous impact on what happens in this country, and around the world. The workings of Congress have to be an essential component of any serious efforts for peace, justice and the integrity of creation.

But the very institution that we must use to shape society is critically flawed itself. The institution to which we must appeal is a central part of the problem.

Back-room deals and last-minute additions violate any notion of public accountability and participation. Catering to local interests gets in the way of efforts to shape careful and intentional national policies. The influence of big campaign donations is widely recognized as a corruption of democratic political processes.

Ted Stevens' riders to the budget bill are a short-term, and short-sighted, gift to the Alaska economy. The provisions will probably prove to be a long-term disaster for the environmental health of large chunks of his home state, and for many other forest areas across the US. The provisions which block legal review are an affront to any notion of government accountability.

The details of the law are bad. But the way those anti-environmental riders became law is a travesty.

It is not enough for us to be informed, active and involved in dealing with specific pieces of legislation. The example this week of Senator Stevens' legislative tricks shows how the deck is stacked against us.

Our efforts for a positive future must go far beyond work on individual bills. We must work for real reform of our nation's political institutions and processes. We must insist that our political institutions be transparent, responsive and accountable to the citizens.

We must work to reclaim democracy, so that we can have some hope of being effective in calling our government institutions care for all parts of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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