09/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When I Use a Word, it Means Just What I Choose it to Mean...

Earlier this week the Bush administration made clear that they are in full Humpty Dumpty mode for the next 158 days. They propose to nullify the Endangered Species Act by drafting a rule specifying that new roads, pipelines, and other federal projects, which in the real world threaten species habitat, "by definition" do not count as a threat under the Act. This decision serves to remind us that the goal at the heart of their governing -- and at this point their exit strategy -- is to strip language of its meaning.

They're squeezing a lot of environmental destruction from this strategy. Several years ago, Team Bush decided that the word "waters" as in "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act meant only some waters. Streams and wetlands that were isolated didn't count. When good Republicans who liked to hunt and fish protested, Bush promised to fix the problem -- but even though Bush stopped short of issuing a formal rule, he told the EPA and the Army Corps not to enforce the Clean Water Act on this 20 percent of the nation's "waterways."

It's been very hard to document just how much damage this linguistic circumlocution -- "that depends on what you mean by water" -- has done. But this week Congressmen James Oberstar and Henry Waxman released information showing that from July 2006 to December 2007, the EPA completely dropped 305 enforcement cases and downgraded another 147. Why? Because the waters that were being polluted were not -- well, "waters." In another 63 cases, defendants simply used the confusion over Clean Water Act jurisdiction to counter the Agency's enforcement efforts.

So what's the bottom line? Any time you read in a media report that the Bush administration says that they are going to "redefine" something -- be very, very disgusted.