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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Campaign Finance and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Environmental protection is at stake in what could become a major showdown of the new Bush presidency. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain is pushing his campaign finance reform bill over the objections of the White House. And one of Senator McCain's cheerleaders in this effort is Arlie Schardt. A former campaign aide to Al Gore, Mr. Schardt now heads perhaps the most influential environmental public relations firm in Washington, Environmental Media Services. Senator McCain's bill would ban political party slush funds called soft money, and, in Mr. Schardt's eyes, that makes it the most important piece of environmental legislation on Capitol Hill.

SCHARDT: I don't think that we'll ever see any really meaningful progress in environmental protection unless we have campaign finance reform. The public's well-being is undermined and, in many cases, seriously hurt by the fact that most members of Congress listen first to their big fat cat donors, and the environmental and public health consumer groups and so on have to try to use just the power of persuasion. And apparently, the power of dollars is more persuasive than the power of logic.

CURWOOD: Let's get specific here. Point to some examples where campaign contributions, this so-called soft money, has an impact on our environment.

SCHARDT: I think one of the areas that's really worth focusing on, because it's so much in the news right now, is energy, the battle over energy prices and energy supplies and so on. The oil industry, as you know, makes enormous contributions to federal officials. And among the results of that, for example, the ban on exporting Alaskan oil was lifted five years ago. And the result of it, according to the General Accounting Office, was that -- this is a quote -- "Lifting the export ban raised the relative prices of Alaskan North Slope and comparable California oil from between 98 cents and $1.30 higher per barrel than the price would have been had the ban not been lifted." I think another dramatic example is, Congress has refused to require improved standards for fuel efficiency in our cars. Fuel economy for the U.S. auto fleet, in spite of all the new technology that's on the market now, is currently at the lowest level since it was in 1980. I think another example is the failure to date to make any progress in the Kyoto Protocol. By the way, the members of the Global Climate Coalition, which is primarily all the major energy interests, they gave $63 million in political contributions just from 1989 through 1999. That's an average of more than $50,000 per member of Congress.

CURWOOD: What other areas do you think that campaign contributions influence environmental policy?

SCHARDT: Well, last year, there was an effort by about 53 members of Congress, both parties, sponsoring legislation that would have allowed new pesticides to be used on foods that are largely consumed by children, without sufficient testing. And that legislation also would have weakened children's health protections under the Food Quality Protection Act. And the agribusiness lobby, at that point, had given millions and millions and millions of dollars to the members of Congress. Including, for example, the lead sponsor of that legislation was Charles Stenholm, and he received 35 times more money than the average member of Congress from agribusiness. In that case, fortunately, the legislation eventually got tied up in committees and did not see the light of day. But last year, agribusiness gave $54 million in campaign contributions. And we saw an instant result of that, even in the opening day of the Bush administration. We've seen President Bush freeze the new Clinton administration restrictions on runoff from factory farms and on testing for bacteria in hotdog plants. It was just in the New York Times the other day. Archer Daniels Midland alone, a giant agribusiness corporation, gave $100,000 to the Bush inaugural committee last month.

CURWOOD: Campaign finance: Is this a Democratic issue, a Republican issue?

SCHARDT: It's clearly bipartisan. It's absolutely bipartisan. Because big industries, the polluting industries, give well-documented millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars in soft money and in campaign contributions to candidates from both parties. And of course, the sponsors are Republican Senator McCain and a Democratic Senator, Russ Feingold from Wisconsin.

CURWOOD: I understand you've approached a number of environmental advocacy groups about getting activated around the issue of money and politics.


CURWOOD: They don't talk much about campaign finance reform. Why not?

SCHARDT: Well, the kinds of answers that I got were kind of mixed. Some of the CEOs said that their groups were already so overloaded with issues that they couldn't take on another one. Others said that it would be too expensive to do it, and their budget wouldn't allow it. A few thought that the idea sounded too, quote, "political." But I think it's starting, to some extent now, Steve. I just noticed, for example, on the Sierra Club Web site, in a release that they put out on the correlation between air pollution and the failure of fuel economy and so on, they had a paragraph that in boldface type was headed, "Long-Term Solution: Reform Campaign Finance." And that's where they pointed out that in the '97-'98 election cycle alone, big oil and automotive lobbies gave out thirty-three and a half million dollars in political contributions.

CURWOOD: Arlie Schardt founded and directs Environmental Media Services in Washington. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

SCHARDT: It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me, Steve.



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