Why This Man Isn't Smiling

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

Why This Man Isn't Smiling

As if fuming Republicans weren't enough... A pocket primer on Bruce Babbitt's iffier "allies" from the Democratic aisle.
By Ned Martel

With two long, strange years behind him, Bruce Babbitt will find himself on familiar terrain in the 1995 legislative season: square one. Grand environmental proposals have been whittled down or scuttled, and Republicans are sure to be gingered up if, as widely predicted, they do well in next month's midterm congressional elections. All of which has Washington, D.C., buzzworms wondering whether Babbitt can accomplish much in the next two years. (Some even bet that he won't be around in 1996, having left town under the steam of his own frustration.) But let's assume he's ready to knock heads over his incomplete chores, including the perpetually deferred rewrite of the Endangered Species Act. If so, he'll have to deal with an iffy bunch of putative allies, Democrats who aren't always loyal members of his political posse. Here, arranged from most liberal to least, are some people to watch.

Representative George Miller (California)

The hulking chairman of the powerful House panel on Natural Resources herds Democrats of all stripes toward Babbitt's loftiest positions. But if he senses that Babbitt is pushing for softer endangered-species language to satisfy pro-development types, he might soften his commitment to their important legislative alliance on Capitol Hill. Miller can line up urban congressmen behind his and Babbitt's shared devotion to public lands, and he was the chief House backer of bills to create new national parks in the California desert, which at press time were still being finalized. But he can also be ornery. He has close ties to powerful groups like the Sierra Club, whose grassroots troops, if cued, could turn their silent seething about Clinton's spotty record into public protest.

White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta

The former director of the Office of Management and Budget can keep the Oval Office door open to Babbitt, who caught it on the nose a few times when western politicians--like outgoing Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus--got to Clinton first. A fiscally conservative Californian, Panetta has often sided with environmentalists in their attempts to squeeze higher land-use antes out of ranchers and miners. Babbitt has been careful to cultivate a personal relationship with him--that's important, because Panetta is striving to untangle Clinton's schedule so that he isn't forced to hear an atonal din on every issue. Environmentalists, however, warn that Panetta shouldn't be counted on to get things organized. Gripes one skeptical lobbyist: "He can't manage his way out of a paper bag."

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer

True, the Supreme Court doesn't mix it up in politics, but the new occupant of the seat that almost went to Babbitt will exert plenty of influence on the Interior agenda. He rattled Greens during his Senate confirmation hearings--his 1993 book Breaking the Vicious Circle outlines an environmental regulatory policy that they think would give polluters too much wiggle room--but Breyer can soothe the doubters on tricky property-rights cases. In recent years conservative activists have convinced courts that decree-happy government agencies shouldn't be allowed to tell landowners what to do without compensating them for property-value losses that may result. The theme has resounded across the country, but Babbitt has made it clear that his ecosystem-management vision doesn't stop at the real-estate agents' plat lines. Breyer hinted that he'll be friendly on this question, but, says John Echeverria, a National Audubon Society attorney, his responses were "a little bit garbled and a little bit guarded."

Speaker of the House Thomas J. Foley (Washington)

Foley, who hails from eastern Washington State, remains loyal to the timber and agricultural interests that sent him to Congress decades ago. While clipped forests and silt-clouded rivers are still big problems in the Northwest, he stiff-arms Babbitt's proposals, including logging bans and dam-toppling. His staff includes powerful aide Nick Ashmore, who can intervene on behalf of any of Foley's favorite industries, including aluminum, which relies on cheap electricity from Columbia River dams. Making nice with the Speaker and his dirt-churning backers is inevitable for Babbitt, because Foley will strongly influence what happens with the 1995 Farm Bill. The Clintonites once assumed that this omnibus agriculture legislation would mark a glorious second phase of their environmental agenda, but Babbitt might have to scale back plans to force farmers to use less water and fewer canisters of pesticides.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colorado)

Campbell, a Harley-riding Northern Cheyenne, has had frosty relations with Babbitt during his freshman Senate term. As a political force, he remains loyal to his old House district, a conservative enclave in western Colorado. Democrats still wince at how Campbell practically high-fived Babbitt's GOP enemies during the 1993 grazing filibuster. Last summer he was publicly warning that western Democrats in this fall's Hill contests would have to "run against" the White House if Babbitt didn't shut up about rangeland reform and other irritants to Rocky Mountain conservatives. Neither Clinton nor Babbitt can afford to simply brush him aside, mainly because he was right. In New Mexico, for example, the campaign HQ of Republican Colin McMillan--who's challenging Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman--has sported a sign that says it all: IT'S BILL CLINTON, STUPID.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web