Political Conflict in the Air: Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell on the Bush Administration's Environmental Record
Published on Wednesday, December 10, 2003 by the Bangor Daily News (Maine)
Political Conflict in the Air
Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell on the Bush Administration's Environmental Record
by Todd Benoit

Since retiring from the Senate in 1995, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine has served as chairman of the International Commission on Disarmament in Northern Ireland, and as chairman of the peace negotiations there. He subsequently led an international fact-finding committee on the crisis between the Israel and the Palestinian Authority and currently is a partner with the national law firm of Piper Rudnick LLP.

BDN editor Todd Benoit recently spoke with Sen. Mitchell about the senator's landmark legislation, the Clean Air Act  of 1990, and the outlook for environmental legislation today.


TB: Most of the Clean Air Act will be implemented in the next couple of years. Has it achieved what you wanted?

GM: There has been substantial progress. Although much more remains to be done in part because the country continues to grow, the number of people, the quantity of emissions continue to rise and therefore more must be done to combat the resulting pollution.

I think it's clear that the cap-and-trade program for sulfur dioxide has worked very effectively. The first President Bush deserves credit for proposing that, and I'm pleased that I was able to persuade many Democrats and others who were skeptical of the provision that it was a reasonable compromise and a reasonable risk to take. So I think it has been successful and I think that there have been substantial reductions in the emissions since then.

The Mobile Source program has been successful in achieving vastly cleaner cars. It takes a long time for the fleet to turn over, but I think that we can look at that as significant progress, and, I'm jumping ahead in my narrative now, but it's one area where I think the actions by the current administration - the failure to push for stringent standards and other weakening actions - is of particular concern.

The Stratospheric Ozone Protection, that's from the Montreal Protocol, has been effective in stimulating the developments of substitutes that are less ozone depleting. Permitting has been reasonably successful, although not many states are now collecting the authorized fees from stationary sources.

The Environmental Protection Agency  has done a generally poor job in implementing the Air Toxics Provisions of the 1990 amendments. Overall, the first Bush administration in the period of time it had after the amendments became law and the Clinton administration were active in implementing not only the letter but the spirit of what was the most comprehensive environmental statute to date at that time.

Regrettably, the current Bush administration is attempting to take the country back to the days before the adoption of environmental laws. In almost every case they've sought to slow down regulatory requirements in the name of flexibility. They've reduced enforcement budgets. And of course the New Source Review revisions will have a very regressive effect.

TB: Well, you anticipated several of my questions. But I wondered whether you thought the current Congress was capable of passing environmental regulations or improvements of a scale that occurred in 1990.

GM: I think it would be very unlikely today for two reasons. One, of course, the party that controls Congress is more hostile to protecting the environment than we were at that time and many of the policies are contrary to environmental laws. Secondly, the processes being used are different.

You saw the recent energy bill and the so-called Medicare  reform bill were written almost entirely by the majority with no participation by the minority, not even a chance to see the bills until just before they had to vote on them. By contrast, when we did this Clean Air Act amendment I spent months in my conference room meeting directly with the representatives of the president and inviting every single senator to participate.

Two-thirds of the senators actively participated in the negotiations. There was no distinction by party. Any senator could come who wanted at any time. And many came and spent dozens - hundreds - of hours in there, Republican and Democrat alike.

The result was that when we finally reached agreement we had a bipartisan majority that was able to withstand amendments from both sides. If you go back and look at the record of the floor action of the Clean Air Act of 1990, I made a deal with President Bush that we would both oppose any amendment. I was put into the very uncomfortable position of opposing strengthening amendments sponsored by environmental groups and presented by staunch environmental senators - John Kerry, Al Gore, Tom Harkin - friends of mine - and I opposed every one of them because I kept my word as did the administration. With only one exception: The only amendment that passed was the ethanol amendment.

And we ended up with a good bill, a strong bill. It was not a perfect bill, but we ended up with it because it was a bipartisan effort. We could not have succeeded with one party alone. The current leadership operates in a completely different manner and that is to shut out the minority and write a bill on their own, and an issue of this complexity - the Clean Air issues - they're very difficult. They're complex. They're technical. ... I don't think you can do it in the way they've done these other bills.

TB: You mentioned bipartisan several times. It's a word that has come up in speaking with others around Washington who recalled the negotiations in 1990, even those who were considered very conservative at the time.

GM: Everybody was free to come in. I had a conference room in the back. I was the principle negotiator on the other side representing the Senate Environment Committee and the Democratic majority. But Sen. Baucus was extremely active and very, very helpful. And Sen. Chafee, who as you know was a Republican senator from Rhode Island. So it was a really good bipartisan effort. Sen. Durenberger, also a Republican senator, from Minnesota, was extremely helpful on that bill. So it was a bipartisan effort. It took a long time.

And you know it's an interesting thing, I think it was the only time I've ever gotten a full-page headline in a Maine newspaper. It was in the Portland Press Herald, when a group of environmental organizations held a press conference attacking me for making this compromise.

I've gotten over getting angry at things, but I was really angry at that. I remember it like it was yesterday. They were insistent that we not compromise at all. They were dead-set against this cap-and-trading provision that the president had proposed. Basically their view was that if they're proposing it, it's got to be bad and don't buy it. It was a risky thing because it hadn't been tried before. And yet in the end after we got a strong bill, the next year all those organizations gave me awards and named me man of the year and invited me to come speak at their organizations. I mean it was just an incredible thing.

TB: What was left out of the 1990 bill that should go in it, or looking back at the last dozen years, what has come up that needs to be addressed on that scale?

GM: I honestly don't know the answer to that. One of the problems with that bill, it could be argued, is that there's too much of it. There's all this difficulty with MTBE and other things. The truth is when you're creating a coalition like that you have to give serious consideration to the concerns to the senators and House members who are active on the issue. And so we took in a lot of things that people were interested in. I think it's justified as opposed to the so-called Christmas Tree Effect when someone adds an unrelated spending measure to a bill. These were relevant to the bill but it was really comprehensive in scope and it's very complicated. It's hard for members of Congress to digest all of this. It's hard for the experts to understand it and digest it.

And when you're a member of Congress, you've got a hundred issues and you're casting several hundred votes a year. You've got hundreds of individuals and groups clamoring to see you. It's very difficult to remain current, knowledgeable and impressible. So I think that one could argue that we could have slimmed it down some.

One of the things that I thought at the time when we faced a whole school of amendments that we had so much in it that there were so many targets, and that we might have had an easier time had we been less comprehensive.

TB: Science on climate change was just coming out at that time. Acid rain was the big issue then.

GM: Yes, it was the big issue. But you know, the science that has become known since then has tended to confirm everything from that time. What's happened is that the argument of those who said and keep saying we don't know enough has become less relevant, less convincing. And it's clear now that their game is simply one of delay and it doesn't make any difference how much more evidence comes up. They're always going to say we don't know enough. The reality is that we do know more than enough to act.

TB: You mentioned the current administration's environmental policies. Do you worry that the 1990 act will be taken apart bit by bit?

GM: Yes, I do, yes.

TB: Do you see signs for that now?

GM: Yes, I do. I think if you take all the actions that the administration, to which I've referred, and I think the prospect the polls suggest the president is now ahead in the polls and likely to be re-elected, and if he is I think you will see a serious effort to further undermine not just the Clean Air Act but all of the landmark environmental laws of our country. People tend to forget how close these things are.

In the 1980s President Reagan sought to terminate the Clean Water program - to terminate it! He vetoed the Clean Water legislation. I managed the bill on the floor and we overrode his veto by one vote. One vote. And so it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Would anyone from Maine want to go back to the days before the Clean Water program? You couldn't find a person that would take that position and yet that was almost the case. By one vote we overrode the president. So I think it could happen. And if President Bush is re-elected it is likely to happen.

I think there will be a difficult, painful, political effort to reduce the effectiveness all in the name of flexibility, energy self-sufficiency. There will be good and noble sentiments expressed in the titles of whatever legislation they make, and they've gotten very good at making up titles that actually are the opposite of what the bill will do. It's a major issue. I'm distressed at the fact that very few Americans - at least at this stage - seem to care about it. It doesn't seem to be a major issue to them, unfortunately. Whether it will be in the campaign or not I don't know, but I think it should be.

©2003 Bangor Daily News