Caught Between an Owl and a Newt

March 21, 1995

If Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest is looking thinner these days, it might be because the moderate Republican congressman is being squeezed on both sides in the debate over the Endangered Species Act. On one side, environmental activists demand that he oppose changes in the 22-year-old law. On the other side, right-wing legislators want his help in dismantling the act.

Mr. Gilchrest, whose district straddles Chesapeake Bay to include a swath of central Anne Arundel County, would like to take the middle road. He represents farmers and watermen whose livelihoods are affected by the law, but he knows most of his constituents still favor environmental protections. Mr. Gilchrest would like to see the law changed, but he opposes the efforts of his more conservative brethren to scrap the law altogether.

Last week, Mr. Gilchrest broke ranks with his fellow Republicans and threatened to resign from the House Resources Committee task force reviewing the Endangered Species Act in protest over the handling of a hearing that was scheduled for his district next week. Mr. Gilchrest wanted to invite several scientists to testify on the importance of preserving rare animals and plants, but the task force chairman refused. A spokesman for the chairman said that the task force wants to hear from "local people," not "self-anointed experts" from inside the Beltway. Mr. Gilchrest responded that legislators should rely on fact -- not anecdotes -- when making and changing laws.

Mr. Gilchrest is right. Unfortunately, this Congress, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has been basing many decisions on half-truths and outright lies as it rushes to dismantle federal regulations and fulfill its Contract with America. In the case of the Endangered Species Act, the hearings are being stacked with opponents of the federal regulations, while the testimony of environmentalists is being prohibited or curtailed. Nor do the congressmen overseeing the hearings pretend to be impartial observers. At one hearing, an Oregon congressman warned an environmentalist to keep away from his state where protection of the spotted owl is blamed for the loss of timber jobs.

Mr. Gilchrest has appealed to Speaker Gingrich to resolve this dispute. For now, the hearing in Mr. Gilchrest's district has been postponed. Although Mr. Gilchrest is right to be worried about Maryland's plants and wildlife, considering what has been going on in Congress lately, the most endangered species seems to be truth.

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