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Signs of Change

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Santa Fe, NM -- When Congress went home before the election, New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici was the Chair of the Senate Energy Committee. Legislation to protect the pristine Valle Vidal was being blocked by Domenici, who wasn't giving up on his objective of opening up the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts to oil and gas drilling and didn't want to be charged with hypocrisy for protecting his own state's jewels.

As the lame duck session of this Congress gets ready to go home, having failed to accomplish even the most basic task of passing appropriations bills necessary to run the federal government, it's a very different world. The first act of the lame duck session was to approve protection for Valle Vidal, because it was clear Domenici could no longer even dream of opening up the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to the oil industry. All he could hope for was that the House would pass an already approved Senate bill to open new areas in the Gulf of Mexico to drilling. But last night the House failed to obtain the 2/3 vote needed to pass that bill -- another sign of changing priorities on Capitol Hill.

Yesterday, Senator Barbara Boxer, the incoming head of the Senate Environment Committee, laid down a clear marker for the Bush Administration. If it weakened environmental protections as it has routinely done through the back door, with Friday afternoon regulatory announcements or new policies pronounced the Friday after Thanksgiving, the bright spotlight of Congressional scrutiny would now shine on those efforts and Congressional response could be expected. "That's over. We are going to bring these things into the light," Senator Barbara Boxer said.

And there are signs of change even inside the Bush Administration. The Environmental Protection Agency, which had earlier proposed to drastically weaken community right-to-know provisions concerning toxic releases by industry, has now backed down. Democratic Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez had blocked the confirmation of Bush's nominee, Molly O'Neill, to serve as federal regulatory czar, in part because of the proposed weakening of the Right-to-Know requirement. EPA Administrator Steve Johnson last week wrote the Senators to say that he was restoring the reporting requirements. "Your perspective on the program is invaluable to us," Johnson wrote.

If this were a MasterCard ad, the tag-line would be, "Winning an election -- Priceless."

The Consumer Products Safety Commission also has a newfound interest in protecting consumers. When the Sierra Club petitioned both CPSC and EPA to ban children's toys made of lead, EPA said "no." But the staff of CPSC moved very rapidly and recommended a complete and total ban, an unprecedented act of regulatory vigor from that agency since Bush took office.

How far this new public-mindedness will go remains to be seen. EPA faces a very major regulatory decision in early January; namely, where to set the air quality health standard for smog. Before the election the agency capitulated to industry and ignored its own career scientists in setting a companion standard for soot. Now we'll see whether the scientists or the politicians at EPA will prevail -- with the knowledge that if politics trumps science, Senator Boxer will hold hearings.