Conservative principles on shelf

September 02, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

SEVERAL WEEKS ago, when President Bush's approval ratings had reached a low point, I heard a radio commentator remark that the president's sagging numbers were being over-emphasized by the mainstream media because it is so opposed to his conservative agenda. I was immediately struck by what passes for conservatism today.

A few hundred miles west of Baltimore, along the Appalachian Trail through the Jefferson National Forest, looms the specter of a White House proposal that significantly would expand the power of the federal government to substitute its judgment for that of local considerations and seize private property for the benefit of outside interests.

A decade-long battle has been under way in southwestern Virginia over a power company's proposed electric transmission line that would slice through timber and farm lands on a nearly 100-mile path into West Virginia. Local opposition in this lush and visually arresting area has been fierce.

In order to squelch local opponents of such projects, the Bush administration has proposed expanding the authority of the federal government to condemn land for power transmission lines and oil and gas pipelines. As conceived, Washington would use eminent domain power to take private property for power rights of way.

Locally, high-voltage power lines are almost universally unwelcome. They have a tangibly negative impact on their surroundings. Trees are cut and vegetation is removed along wide paths. Herbicides are regularly applied to retard plant growth under the lines. In addition to the plain ugliness of the ubiquitous towers and wires, there is the incessant hum, the crackling noises during wet weather, and the interference with television, radio and phones. Moreover, although studies have found no conclusive evidence of harm, health concerns about exposure to electromagnetic fields persist.

But particularly disturbing to locals is that the power provided is often not intended to benefit the community that absorbs the impact of the lines. In these days of deregulation, power can be transmitted to the nationwide grid and sold to other power suppliers for use elsewhere in the country. Accordingly, local landowners may have their property taken and their environment degraded in order to satisfy energy needs, and opportunities for supplier profits, elsewhere in the country.

Expansion of the federal government's exercise of the power of eminent domain is not exactly high on the list of traditional conservative values, but it can be a great benefit to private business interests. Indeed, this is similar to the strategy adopted by Mr. Bush and his fellow investors in the Texas Rangers franchise when they wanted a new ballpark for the team.

The Rangers' investors used the condemnation powers of a state-created sports authority to take land for the project, combined with a half-cent sales tax increase and partial building materials sales tax exemption to help finance construction. A jury subsequently found that the authority had underpaid for the condemned land.

But at least that was a matter of local interest in which the sales tax component was the subject of a referendum. The utility line proposal would give the federal government not only power over property owners, but would have it supersede state and local authority.

This disposition to expand government authority over the interests of individuals, and to promote federal over local decision-making, certainly does not suggest a deep philosophical commitment to limited government. Rather, it indicates a willingness to do what is necessary to achieve an energy business objective, even when the means used result in expanded government powers and diminished personal property rights.

While the Senate-approved McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill languishes in the House of Representatives, we continue with a system in which campaigns are powered by enormous amounts of unlimited soft money.

Given those circumstances, it takes little imagination to posit that the interests of these wealthy contributors influence policy determinations. It is no secret that the generators and marketers of electricity have been among the largest campaign contributors to the president and his Republican Party and that their lobbyists participated in the deliberations of the administration's energy task force.

The result is policy driven, not by a political philosophy, but by special interests that have paid for the privilege. None of this should be surprising, given the manner in which we finance campaigns, but don't call it conservatism. The exercise of philosophical principles is not at work here.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a Baltimore lawyer.

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