Balance of Powers:
The fate of our ecosystems hanging within the balance

Will the balance of power survive?
Citizens in action: The fourth branch of government

The founders of the United States envisioned a government that would protect citizens from the ravages of an oppressive autocratic government. In order to ensure that a diversity of opinions would be respected and integrated into the common law, they established a tripartite system of checks and balances. In our government, the three branches— administrative, judicial, and legislative—are intended to regulate the excesses of one another.

The administrative (or executive) branch has the authority to make executive decisions regarding the day-to-day operation of the government and the nation. The President appoints officials to many of the highest posts in government, including the heads of each government department (such as the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service), thus exerting a great deal of control over all of society. The judicial branch interprets the laws and decides when constitutional rights and laws have been violated. Congress, the legislative branch, broadly allocates our tax dollars and creates the laws which direct the administrative branch and are to be enforced by the Judiciary.

Regarding our nation’s forestlands, Congress has over the past century enacted various environmental laws defining how the administration shall carry out its duties administering federal lands. When the administrative branch (including the U.S. Forest Service) violates these laws, it is up to the judiciary to bring the administration back in line.

What does this mean to those of us who are fighting for the protection of our forest ecosystems? The Reagan and Bush administrations undertook a concerted campaign to transfer our public treasures, especially the wealth of our public lands, to private interests, using tax dollars to achieve this end. President Clinton made many public promises to save the Ancient Forests and manage the national forests in an environmental manner. Unfortunately, during Clinton's 8 years as President, the Forest Service continued destructive clearcutting of Ancient Forests and throughout the entire national forest system, although at reduced levels from the Reagan-Bush era. This was for a combination of reasons, including the record number of lawsuits and timber sale appeals from citizens and environmental groups, as well as the glut of timber and low timber prices due to massive timber imports from Canada and other countries. The forests that have not yet been clearcut are not permanently protected, they simply have not be clearcut yet.

President Clinton left office with a highly publicized new policy for the roadless areas in the national forests. The policy would have reduced, but not stopped, logging in the roadless areas. This would have affected less than 5 % of the logging on the national forests. Even though the effect was relatively small on overall logging in the national forests, President George W. Bush and his administration moved to overturn Clinton's modest proposal, and increase logging levels inside and outside the roadless areas.

These administrations regularly violated federal environmental laws. For the forests this has spelled disaster as law after law has been broken. Wilderness Areas have been logged (violating the Wilderness Act) and species have been driven towards extinction (violating the Endangered Species Act). National Forest timber sales have constantly been appealed, and the Forest Service has repeatedly been sued, for violations of the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Acts. Even the Tongass Timber Reform Act has been violated by the Forest Service in Southeast Alaska.

Environmental groups and their attorneys have sued the agencies of the executive branch in a struggle to maintain the level of protection mandated by Congress. Even though the Forest Service is regularly sued, high profile cases are the main ones persued because lawsuits are very costly, and standing is often difficult to establish. The result is that countless day-to-day violations go unchallenged,
if not unnoticed: the Forest Service is allowed to continue its destructive activities, the administration continues to trample the environmental laws of the land, and our rights as citizens remain in jeopardy. TOP

Will the Balance of Powers Survive?

If Congress continues to move in line with the administration, and the courts become more and more anti-environmental, we will see a crushing and final reversal of the progressive environmental agenda, especially with respect to the forests. Because of the stinging success of environmental lawsuits like the spotted owl case, many in Congress and the administration have been vigorously pushing to gut our current laws. In 1995, the Congress passed and the President signed the most anti-environmental law in history, the "timber salvage rider", which suspended all environemental laws on the national forests for 3 years, and unleashed a blizzard of clearcuts in many of the most fragile remaining Ancient Forests. The long-term results of the undermining of our environmental laws will be restriction of our constitutional rights, plus infringements on the rights of citizens to keep the administration in line via the judiciary. The system of checks and balances between the three branches of government, and the very structure of our democratic system, is endangered.

Citizens in Action:
The fourth branch of government

How can we prevent this from happening? For us as grassroots forest activists, the most important part of the tripartite system is actually the fourth branch of government, but it’s the one most Americans seem to forget: the people. American citizens have a certain number of checks and balances over the operation of the government, like voting, freedom of speech, and access to the courts. But tragically, these rights are very seldom utilized to their fullest extent. Apathy has atrophied our participation in government, and now our rights are under attack. So, as they say, "Use it or lose it!"

How a Bill Moves Through Congress

The first step of a bill's journey through the halls of Congress is introduction into the House of Representatives or the Senate by a member of Congress. The House and Senate are both broken down into committees and then into subcommittees.

The bill is referred to a committee where the chairperson and staff determine which subcommittee, if any, it will be referred to. For forest legislation, the House Agriculture and Natural Resource committees are generally the most common referrals. In the Senate, the Energy and Natural Resources, Environment and Public Works, and Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committees are where forest legislation is debated.

One of the first tasks upon introduction of a bill is to show that the bill has the support of as many members of Congress as possible. This is done by gaining cosponsors, members who are willing to have their names listed as being in favor of the bill. The longer the list of cosponsors, the more likely it is that the bill will move to the next stage in the legislative process: hearings and votes in the subcommittees and full committees.

The subcommittee provides the forum where the bill is first and most thoroughly debated. Hearings occur in which witnesses, including federal officials and experts may testify for and against the bill. If a majority of the subcommittee approves, the bill goes back to the full committee where it must again be approved by majority vote before it goes to the House or Senate floor. House bills must have cleared the Rules Committee where debate time limits are often established. Amendments to the bill may be offered in committee or on the floor.

If the House or Senate passes the bill it is then moved to the other chamber where it is referred to a committee. If that committee approves, it goes to the floor. Approval on the floor means both the House and Senate have separately cleared the bill and conferees from each chamber are then selected to work out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Then they write a conference report, a single version of the bill, which is sent back to the floor of each chamber for final approval.

If the identical bill is then approved by both chambers, it is sent to the President. If the President signs the bill, the bill becomes law. If the President disapproves, it is vetoed and sent back to the originating chamber with objections noted. The veto can be overridden if two-thirds of the Members of both the House and Senate vote to do so.