At one of the plethora of policy forums at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, Director of Natural Resource Studies Jerry Taylor is winding up his pitch for demolishing the Department of Energy (DOE). He spews forth a barrage of words as though if he slowed down for even a microsecond he’d be lost forever. “There’s not a bigger cesspool in government than DOE,” he says. “There’s no more reason for the government to have a Department of Energy than a government department of sporting goods.”
Across town, symbols of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s (CEI) vision of environmental policy of tomorrow swim placidly in an aquarium. Candidates for the endangered species list, the five fish are supposed to demonstrate how private citizens should be the ones to save endangered species, not the government.
With the ascension of Republicans in Congress, these think tanks – many of which have been toiling in relative obscurity for years – are frantically bidding to put their stamp on a new era of right-wing policy. With privatization plans for everything from the lowly candy darter fish at CEI to the very air we breathe, policy institutes from Washington, D.C. to Seattle, Washington are exhorting the slashing of regulation coupled with rabid private property rights.
“Our influence comes from ideas. When we put out something and say this is what conservative thought should be, Congress listens,” says John Shanahan, environmental policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. “The `Contract with America’ wouldn’t be there without groups like Heritage.”
Says Jane Shaw, a senior associate at the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana, which advocates market-based solutions to environmental problems, “We used to be considered radical. But we’re not on the fringe any more.” If, as Shaw says, a think tank’s role is to “create the intellectual foundations for better policy,” then that policy has the potential to be skewed heavily toward the right.
Government, according to the gospel of Cato, is the albatross around the neck of a productive nation. Says Cato’s president, Edward H. Crane, “The level of taxation and of government regulation is a measure of our failure to civilize our society.”
In Taylor’s view, private industry should be taking up the research and development aspects of DOE. It should also be doing the cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities – without government oversight. “Give it to the lowest bidder. If all we do is put a fence around Rocky Flats and let wildlife flourish and don’t let kids eat the dirt, fine,” he says from the institute’s gleaming new glass and concrete building, complete with multi-story atrium, that rises incongruously from the grafitti-scarred blocks surrounding it.
In the forum debating abolishing DOE, Ed Rothschild, director of public affairs for the public interest group Citizen Action, agrees that certain functions and spending of the department haven’t been appropriate, but says that, “As a society, we can function much more effectively with rules. It’s idealistic and foolish to think government roles will be carried out by the private sector. Laws are here because of the failure of the market, not its success.”
Although Taylor says that citizens would have the recourse of suing in the absence of national environmental regulations, he’s dismissive of questions about how citizens would have the money, clout or technical expertise to be able to both identify environmental problems and effectively sue to correct them. “We see people win lawsuits against major courts all the time. Look at the alternative. It’s sure more difficult to win against Congress,” Taylor counters.
As for public lands, Taylor estimates if the Interior Department sells them off to environmental organizations to care for, the government could be in for a windfall of $500 billion. He made this modest proposal to the Interior Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee at a January hearing. But even tree farmer Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC) – who has been dubbed by some environmentalists as “Chainsaw Chuck” – balked at Jerry Taylor’s idea to sell off National Forest Service lands. “Some of the things you’ve been saying make it seem as if you’ve been smoking a little funny weed somewhere,” he remarked at the hearing, according to The Washington Post.
Cato’s zeal to get government off citizens’ backs has lead to a very mixed agenda. “I’d dearly love to say I’d like to get rid of the EPA,” Taylor muses in his office after the energy forum. Then again, Cato has lobbied for legalizing drugs and cutting defense spending. It even opposed the Gulf War – at the expense of about $200,000 in foundation grants out of the institute’s $6 million budget, Taylor estimates.
Twelve blocks away, on the other side of the Capitol, the Heritage Foundation’s location next to a deli that bills itself in big letters as “outrageous” seems only-fitting. The plush lobby of the building overflows with funereal flower arrangements and gilt-framed oil paintings of such arch-Republican luminaries as Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. Visitors wait before a handleless, high-tech security door that swings silently outward when they are approved for entrance into the foundation’s inner sanctum.
Environmental analyst John Shanahan’s office is remarkably more austere than Heritage’s outer facade. In a cubby hole whose walls are fashioned from fabric-covered room dividers, a copy of the “Contract with America” sits squarely in the middle of his paper-strewn desk and a bumper sticker declaring, “The Earth is Not Fragile, Control the EPA,” is tacked to his bulletin board.
Like Taylor, Shanahan’s talent lies in keeping up a running monologue designed to leave little room for argument, a patter that, at times, seems lifted from the rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh. Or maybe vice versa.
“The public sees the environmental movement inside Washington as wackos,” he says, warning that environmentalists shouldn’t be too quick to paint the new Congress as the legislative equivalent to James Watt. “Environmentalists will be pushing Republicans into a game where the only choice they give Congress is to have no pollution and [to just] keep piling on the regulations. I’m afraid there will be no recourse for the Republicans but to take a slash and bum approach instead. And the environmentalists will be at fault.”
Still, Shanahan seems to delight in throwing into every other sentence the term “unholy trinity,” a phrase coined by environmentalists to characterize the pernicious push to dismantle regulations, adhere to strict notions of property rights and halt unfunded mandates at any cost. “It’s just such a great term,” he says sarcastically. “Unholy trinity shows a lack of perspective by the environmental community in equating property rights with the anti-Christ.”
In Shanahan’s view of the world, every last molecule on Earth has the potential to be privatized, from streams to air to wildlife (endangered species have commercial value, he insists). To do this, the free market system must be allowed to operate unfettered by restraints and subsidies imposed by the government.
If every bit of a stream is owned, what about a corporation that is dumping upstream and whose pollution is washed to a poor neighborhood downstream?
“Some pollution is actually good. You need pollution to have economic growth,” he opines. In fact, an article in the think tank’s magazine, Policy Review, named the environmental movement as “the greatest single threat to the American economy.”
With 160 employees and a $23 million annual budget, the 22-year-old Heritage Foundation is renowned for barraging policy makers and the press with a relentless rain of issue papers all emblazoned with the caveat that “nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Heritage Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.” Ostensibly the disclaimer absolves the organization from its work being misconstrued as lobbying, which is strictly curtailed by its non-profit, tax exempt status. All the think tanks contacted for this article are also in this tax-exempt category.
Shanahan points out Heritage will provide information to anyone in Congress, no matter which side of the aisle. For example, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (DCA) asked for material on how Clinton’s proposed gas tax would affect her state, Heritage obliged. “We’re not interested in particular laws. We’re interested in a cultural shift. We’re audited by IRS every other year. Now with the Republican Congress, we might not be under as much scrutiny,” he says half in jest.