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Progress on environment will be tough

Deficit reduction, NAFTA and a few other achievements raised the 103rd Congress' overall record somewhat. But with respect to the environment, this Congress was pure scorched earth.

Legislators could not manage to fix the lawyer-riddled, overly expensive Superfund program for cleaning up toxic-waste sites, even though 80 percent of the work was done for them by a coalition of business and environmental leaders who produced a compromise plan.

Administration proposals to reduce subsidies that cause environmental harm while draining the federal treasury were defeated. They included a century-old mining law that forces the government to give away billions of dollars of taxpayer-owned minerals, water subsidies that encourage waste by charging farmers a few percent of what it costs to deliver the water, and subsidies that underwrite otherwise unprofitable logging. These programs costs the taxpayer twice: once through the subsidy and later to deal with the damage it causes.

A harmless proposal to create a National Biological Survey to identify what species live where didn't make it out of the starting blocks. A bill to raise the Environmental Protection Agency to Cabinet status went down. The Senate failed to ratify the Biodiversity Treaty, and the proposed energy tax was slashed to insignificance.

The League of Conservation Voters, the political arm of the environmental movement, called this the worst Congress in the 25 years it has kept score. And it happened while polls show steady high public support for environmental protection.

Part of the reason is that the environment has become _ for now _ a one-party issue. Turning away from a long history of environmental leadership, today's GOP seems to have concluded that since it can't compete with the Democrats, it might as well get what it can from across-the-board opposition. Republicans' average LCV rating in the House and Senate last year was a bleak 19 out of 100. (Democrats averaged 75 in the Senate and 68 in the House.)

The legislative debacle also may be a sign that the first environmental era has about played itself out while the next is not ready to be born.

Until now, environmental progress has been achieved largely because government set standards and specified exactly how they were to be met. Because of the difficulties of enforcing such detail, the focus has been on major polluters. Small sources and individuals have been largely ignored. There has been little integration of environmental needs with broad policy setting in areas like energy, agriculture and transportation, and virtually none with macroeconomic policy as a whole.

The next era should see a shift from primary reliance on regulation to the use of economic signals. These allow pollution to be reduced where that can be done at least cost. They can nudge change in the right direction without requiring the government to spend years deciding whether 0.01 or 0.013 is the safe level of a particular substance. They can be as easily applied to every consumer and small enterprise as to large businesses.

The ultimate goal is to make prices reflect environmental costs _ the costs of resource extraction, of waste disposal, of land and habitat use, and of pollution.

The first step, getting rid of direct subsidies and indirect tax write-offs for environmentally damaging activities, will also reduce the regulatory burden.

The next step is to use targeted taxes, so-called "green fees" to adjust prices. These can be familiar types, like emissions charges and deposit-return fees, or newer ones like time-of-day pricing on highways to reduce congestion. The revenues can be used to replace growth-inhibiting taxes on corporate income and payrolls.

For all its advantages, this shift to a more-nimble, economically efficient approach to environmental protection won't come easily. Beneficiaries will fight for every federal dollar they now enjoy, and though targeted fees are less objectionable, no tax is welcome.

The good news is that change is coming, though very slowly. The bad news is that the 103rd Congress may be only the first of many unable to produce any environmental advance.

Special to the Washington Post