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Environment as a partisan issue Politics: Many Republicans in Congress seem to regularly attack clean air, clean water, endangered species, wetlands and other matters related to the natural world.

DRAFT DODGER, patriot; Bill Clinton, Bob Dole.

Match them up; and be mindful -- this is an environmental column.

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This train of thought proceeds from a recent talk by Wayne Gilchrest, the Republican and environmentalist who represents me in Congress.

It was the weakest performance I've heard Rep. Gilchrest give. Maybe the problem was the topic set forth by Salisbury State University: "Conservatism and Environmentalism -- The Apparent Conflict."

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Until recently there's been no fundamental conflict. But Republicans in Congress have changed all that dramatically.

You name it, and they have attacked it -- clean air, clean water, endangered species, wetlands, public lands; with frontal assaults, then when those failed, with budget cuts and insidious riders attached to must-pass omnibus bills.

They have managed to make the environment, for the first time in modern history, seem a partisan issue, though I suspect a goodly majority of Republican voters still care deeply about the natural world.

The numbers just out on the performance of their elected representatives are sobering. Mr. Gilchrest's talk coincided with release of the League of Conservation Voters annual score card for Congress.

The League is the 25-year-old bipartisan political arm of the environmental movement, representing a consensus of 27 groups, from the national Sierra Club and Audubon Society, to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, American Sportfishing Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Ratings are based on more than a dozen issues, from drinking water safety and nuclear waste disposal, to family planning funds, the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, Arctic oil drilling and releasing red wolves into the wild.

One could be a caring environmentalist and vote "wrong" on this or that issue on the League's wide-ranging list, so it would not be useful to argue the difference in a score of 75 and one of, say, 87, out of a top score of 100.

The League itself just says scores under 30 are environmental "zeros" and over 80 are "heroes" (Mr. Gilchrest scored 77).

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With this Congress, however, little subtlety of interpretation is required. Consider:

Senate -- average score: Democrats 89, Republicans 11.

House -- Democrats 76, Republicans 15.

Democratic and Republican polls are confirming that such low scores have played poorly with voters, and the Democrats no doubt will get good mileage out of it in November.

Backpedaling, House Speaker Newt Gingrich a month ago appointed a 66-member Environmental Task Force. It has some good people on it, such as Mr. Gilchrest and Sherwood Boehlert, a 92 percent voter on the League's score card.

Still, the average score of this, the Republican's environmental committee, is barely above 20, and includes 27 members with scores of zero.

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Mr. Gilchrest is Bob Dole's campaign manager for Maryland, so I asked what he would say to a Republican voter concerned about the presidential nominee's environmental scores, which were mostly terrible between 1970 and 1990, before heading south with a vengeance. (Since 1991, the senator from Kansas has scored 13, 0, 6, 0 and 0, the League says.)

Earlier, he had told the crowd, "environmental issues, unfortunately, don't fall within the range of issues that are important to a lot of Republican elected officials," and seemed to defend Mr. Gingrich for "all the bad [environmental] legislation he hasn't let out of the House."

As for Mr. Dole, Mr. Gilchrest said it was his strong feeling that, as president, Mr. Dole would give more influence to environmental moderates, but conceded that environmental issues to date "have not been within his frame of reference not a priority."

Well, excuse my priorities, but I have, in the past few months, heard a similar excuse made for a high church official, a bank president, a university president and a high school principal -- and now for the would-be leader of the most powerful nation in the world.

In an age of acute global and scientific awareness of what is happening -- needlessly -- to ecosystems from Chesapeake Bay to the rain forests, this simply won't wash anymore.

It no longer can be acceptable to say of anyone who pretends to full-functioning citizenship that the environment has not been in their frame of reference, no more than they might claim ignorance of the democratic system, or the constitutional protection of free speech.

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This leads me to a conversation I had a few years ago with Ben White, one of the most radical environmental activists I have known. I was surprised at the support he had from his father, a conservative career military man and veteran of armed conflicts.

The way they both saw it, Ben said, was "that we both dedicated our lives to the national defense. In his day the enemy was the Commies; now the threat is environmental destruction."

So who is the draft dodger, and who is the patriot?

I'm not sure you can compare Pearl Harbor to dirty water, or Hitler to pesticides; and it wasn't long ago, as governor of Arkansas that environment was not much in Bill Clinton's frame of reference.

Still, Republicans might want to ask Bob Dole some pointed questions about where he was when they were drafting citizens for Earth Day.

Pub Date: 5/03/96


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