Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Political Shenanigans
distributed 9/23/05 - ©2005

Today, 1.5 million people are fleeing the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana as the second massive hurricane in a month promises widespread destruction. My prayers go out to those whose homes, businesses and communities will be shattered by Rita. My prayers are with the poor who, once again, were not able to find a way to evacuate. My prayers are with those who will provide essential relief services in the coming days and weeks. And I pray that this pair of storms might prod our leaders and planners to seek better ways of living in reasonable harmony with the natural world.

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This morning, I also think about a very different set of Texas refugees, a small group who fled a disastrous political storm. In August, 2003, all of the Democratic members of the Texas legislature went to New Mexico, denying the quorum that was needed to pass legislation. They left their home state in an attempt to block a heavy-handed redistricting measure being pushed by the Republican majority.

Eventually, the legislators returned to their seats, the extraordinary redistricting passed, and the revamping of congressional districts survived court challenges. In the 2004 elections using the new boundaries, the Republicans picked up many new seats, solidifying their party's majority in the US Congress.

Every state is required to redraw the boundaries of its congressional districts once every 10 years, after census counts. In 1993, the Texas legislators threw out the boundaries drawn after the 1990 census, and pushed through new district lines that gave clear political advantage to their own parties. Doing a second redistricting within a decade broke with all modern precedent.

It was seen as a blatant power grab -- admired by some as audacious, and decried by others as unconscionable.

So why do I think of the Democrats fleeing Texas? Because this week's political news from Washington DC tells of a pair of actions that also strike me as distressing abuses of political process and power. Once again, there are some who will see these procedural tricks as a creative path to political success; others will raise objections.

I'm in the objection camp. In both cases that I'll describe, controversial decisions are being processed in ways that silence opponents. If this is "politics as usual," I don't like it.

  • Case #1 -- The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
    For 35 years, the coastal plain of ANWR has been contentious ground. It is an area that is presumed to have lots of oil and gas. What is known for sure is that it has lots of wildlife. The choice between energy and caribou has fueled bitter political conflict for decades.

    The US Congress has addressed the question of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge many times through the years, and it has always been rejected -- sometimes only by filibusters, and on one occasion by a Presidential veto.

    When the issue came up again in 2005, it was evident that the proponents of drilling could not craft a bill that would survive a vote. So they resorted to a different approach.

    The authorization for drilling in ANWR was not addressed as a policy question in last summer's massive Energy Bill. This time around, permission is being handled as a budget item. ANWR is now a piece of the Budget Reconciliation legislation -- a very specialized, "must pass" bill that is not subject to filibusters -- that will be voted on this fall.

    When I wrote about the ANWR process six months ago, a friend responded: "The sad thing about ANWR ... is that we fight and win many and many a time, but all the bad guys need to do is win once, regardless of trickery or tactics, they only need to win one time."

  • Case #2 -- Changes to the Endangered Species Act.
    Another long-standing conflict in Congress has been over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Since 1973, the ESA has guided federal efforts to identify at-risk species, and to define effective recovery plans.

    Rep. Richard Pombo has been one of the most vocal opponents of the ESA in Congress. He now chairs the House Resource Committee -- the committee that deals with such matters. And this fall, he has put his position to use.

    The political insiders knew that Mr. Pombo would launch a major attach on the ESA this year. Some drafts of his legislation were leaked over the summer, and the proposals looked as bad as expected -- but there was no official language to critique.

    On Monday morning of this week (9/19/05), Rep. Pombo introduced HR3824, his deceptively named "Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act." It is 74 pages of complicated amendments to the ESA -- striking whole sections, adding new language, and introducing entirely new approaches to managing wildlife, dealing with private property, and defining legal processes. The proposed legislation is a profound re-working of one of the core pieces of environmental legislation in the US.

    The bill was introduced on Monday. On Wednesday, the committee held a couple of hours of hearings on the legislation. Yesterday, the committee voted to send the bill on to the full House. It is possible that the entire House could vote on this bill next week, less than 10 days after the text of the legislation was made public.

    In the interests of full disclosure, Eco-Justice Ministries has been working hard to preserve a strong Endangered Species Act, and to fight the sort of changes that Rep. Pombo's bill would bring. In partnership with the Noah Alliance, we will be continuing that fight in the House through the next week, and in the Senate through the coming months.

Maybe I'm angry at this fast-track process of radical change to the ESA because it makes it very hard for me to win at a cause that I hold dear. And maybe I'm angry about the backhanded process on ANWR because it precludes the sort of motivated opposition that has blocked drilling in the past. Maybe I'm just a sore loser.

But there are substantive reasons why I think these political processes are wrong.

The theologians who have shaped the core of eco-justice ethics refer to four broad norms: solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and participation. Participation means that "everybody who has a stake in the decision should get a fair chance to take part."

It seems to me that the norm of participation is getting trashed by the shenanigans in Washington this fall. "Giving everybody a chance to take part in the decision" has been replaced with "if you've got the power to do it, then go ahead."

  • If you can't win the ANWR fight out in the open, hide it in a budget bill.
  • If you're going to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act, run it through the process so fast that nobody has a chance to raise informed opposition. And do it at a time when the public is distracted with a pair of hurricanes.
Two years ago, the legislators from the minority party in Texas left the state for several weeks to protest abuses of political power. They lost the vote on that issue, but they took a dramatic stand for their cause. The fact of the matter is, it is only the losing side that has a reason to name and fight this sort of procedural corruption.

We haven't lost on ANWR and the ESA -- yet. I strongly urge you to contact your Representative and your Senators (find names and contact info at Project Vote-Smart). Let them know where you stand on the ESA and ANWR, and on the inappropriate processes being used to silence the public.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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