The Curious Ways of Speaker Wright ENVIRONMENTALISTS are grumbling that Speaker of the House Jim Wright may be preparing to steamroll one of their top legislative concerns into oblivion. In a classic confrontation between the oil industry and the environmental lobby, Speaker Wright seems to be siding with the industry and seems to be inclined to roll over the opposition, lobbyists for the Sierra Club say. The battle has to do with the preservation of the Alaska Wildlife Refuge, a 100-mile stretch of coastland which environmentalists say is the last stretch of unspoiled land in Alaska. “We’re talking about the most wild habitat in the United States,” says Tim Mahoney, a Sierra Club lobbyist, and chairman of the Alaska Coalition, a network of environmental groups. But the oil industry wants the land opened up to oil exploration and development. The bill has been bottled up in two House committees \(it has been “jointly stay there but for the desire of Wright to get it out and onto the floor for a vote. Sierra Club lobbyist Lon Burnam of Fort Worth worries that “the Speaker may cram it down the throats of Congress” by “rolling” the committees. If so, Burnam says, it may “add to the sleaze appearance factor” by confirming Wright’s critics’ claim that the Speaker wields his power ruthlessly. The committees that Wright would have to lean on are the Committee on the Interior, chaired by Arizona Democrat Morris Udall, and the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, led by North Carolina Democrat Walter Jones. Pure nonsense, according to the Speaker’s office. “We don’t exert influence over committees,” says Charmayne Marsh, Wright’s press secretary. “Committees are self-controlled entities.” Marsh said she didn’t know what Wright’s position on the Alaska bill was. A staff member for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., dissolved into laughter when told of Marsh’s remark that the Speaker does not exert influence on committees. Miller sits on the Interior committee and has met with Wright on the Alaska Wildlife bill. Miller’s aide says that Wright told Miller he wanted a bill out of committee by June. When asked by the press if he was feeling pressure from Wright, Miller said, “I can feel the hot air on the back of my neck right now.” Some Democrats are worried that Wright may want to push the bill even though a public battle with environmentalists could be costly in an election year. Says Mahoney, “Almost every major environmental group is working together on this.” —D.D. Gingrich. “Truthfully, I’m amazed at my friends at Cornmon Cause,” Mauzy said. Simpson called the group a “Republican organization,” albeit a generally liberal one. Simpson argued that Wright’s performance needs to be put in perspective. “Jim Wright’s been a strong, effective Speaker,” Simpson said. “He ended the war in Nicaragua. We had one guy who figured out how .to get that done. Tip O’Neill could not get that done,” he said. Given Wright’s success it is only natural, Simpson said sarcastically, that “it’s time for liberals to go beat up on him.” THOUGH COMMON CAUSE played a key role in adding credibility to the charges against Wright, the organization has seemed to downplay the issues in the light of the media glare. The organization’s national vice president Randy Huwa, in Washington D.C., pointed out that Common Cause has written letters asking for ethics investigations for five other Congressmen besides Wright. Huwa declined to discuss the relative seriousness of the six charges they have raised, saying that it was for the House ethics committee to decide whether the charges are important and whether they have merit. Common Cause Texas director John Hildreth is also in no rush to judge Wright before the evidence is in. But he says he is bothered by a prevalent attitude among Democrats that the Wright affair should not be taken seriously because it has become a Republican issue. “It’s obvious that both political parties like to jump on these sort of issues for purely partisan purposes,” he said. But “it’s ludicrous to suggest that we [should] just toss up any behavior or any particular conduct on the part of a legislator or a member of Congress and say, ‘Well, that’s politics.’ ” A less than rigorous examination of public officials’ conduct only serves to feed public cynicism about the political process, he said. One of the few state Democrats who admits to being “troubled” about the substance of the Wright questions is state Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas. Wolens said he thought the charges were “a lot of political pabulum” until the revelation broke about Wright’s aide working on his book. “At that point it really bothered me a lot. At first blush, that looks improper,” he said. “It bothers me, nags at me, disappoints me.” Wolens was an energetic member of the state Ethics Advisory Commission until the agency went dormant when its budget was zeroed out by the legislature. He said that in his view it is unacceptable for Congressional or legislative staffers to work on private projects on government time and pointed out that Republican Gingrich admitted that he assigned a staffer to review his book as well. But Attorney General Mattox, who was also a member of the ethics commission and now shares responsibility with the Secretary of State for monitoring ethics in state government, said such practices are common in government. “It’s not unusual for members of Congress to have their staff members categorize [or] research and edit materials that will ultimately be used in publications or maintained for historical purposes,” he said. Wolens contends that “many times it may be legal, it may be ethical, but it doesn’t pass the fish test.” Amidst all the discussion of Wright’s unique royalty agreements and book distribution methods, one issue is going largely ignored \(though it will be part of the House controversial intervention with federal savings and loan regulators on behalf of three Texas S&Ls that later were charged with fraudulent activities. Though Wright was reportedly holding up the recapitalization bill for an entire industry on behalf of the Texas thrifts, few Democrats see anything more to this than good constituent service, or at the worst, traditional power politics. Whether Wright used his power improperly to impede necessary regulation of an industry in crisis is a question that may prove to be too broad for the House ethics committee. State Democrats are in agreement on another matter as well: the holier-than-thou attitude of Republicans such as Georgia Rep. Gingrich has gone far enough. Mattox said Gingrich and other Congressional conservatives waste more of the taxpayers’ money than Wright ever has, because they use up space in the Congressional Record and time on televised addresses to empty chambers that promote their narrow political agendas. “They should pull the timber out of their own eye before they start trying to pluck the splinter out of somebody else’s,” Mattox said. Judge Mauzy resents Gingrich’s apparent attempt to damage Wright in time for the national Democratic convention in Atlanta, over which Wright is expected to preside. “I hope the day hasn’t come when we Democrats will let some half-assed Republican Congressman from Georgia tell us who we can have as leader of our own party’s convention,” Mauzy declared. Probably that day has not yet come. 0 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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