The New Congress: A Green Guide
November 16, 2006
Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
In many respects , life is simpler in the minority. It’s always easier to block legislation than to pass it. And for most of the past decade, environmental advocates have been forced to play defense—battling, for instance, against drilling in Alaska, against efforts to gut the Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts, against efforts to weaken reporting requirements for toxic chemical releases.
Now, it’s time for environmentalists to take the offensive.
"The political winds have shifted, and the breeze will be at our back," my friend Jeremy Symons, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s global climate change campaign noted this week at U.N. climate change talks in Nairobi. Symons also noted, however, that “There is a lot of hard work ahead” before an effective plan for global warming will become law. He predicted 2009 as the likely date.
In the new Congress, it is a near-guarantee that the Democrats will initially focus on things they can agree on: Investigating of the Bush administration efforts to censor scientists, repealing oil tax breaks and finding new ways to spur more ethanol use. Building a consensus on controversial issues such as global warming will be much harder and take longer.
Here are a few of the key players worth watching as the environmental and energy debates proceed during the next two years:
Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., will become chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws. Boxer has already said she hopes to promote a national plan on global warming that would mirror the recent visionary California initiative but it will be quite an accomplishment to get enough of her colleagues on board.
Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., has quietly been rounding up bipartisan support (co-sponsors include Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.) that would limit global warming and other emissions from electric power plants. Environmentalists generally favor an economy-wide emissions limit.
Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., will chair the Senate Energy Committee. In 2005, Bingaman shepherded a bipartisan resolution through the Senate calling on Congress to take action on global warming. He has been working on a follow-up plan to set an economy-wide limit on greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalists have criticized earlier versions of the plan as too weak.
Representative John Dingell, D-Mich., who will resume chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a position he held before 1995. Dingell has vowed hearings and investigations, but it is reasonable to expect he will proceed slowly and try to shelter his auto industry constituents (in the early 1980s, he was dubbed “Tailpipe Johnny” for his unapologetic support of industry). In a conference call with reporters last week, Dingell argued for more nuclear power—a position most environmentalists are squeamish about. To underscore his close ties to the auto industry, Dingell on Wednesday named a former aide who left to lobby for DaimlerChrysler to be the committee's chief of staff in the new Congress.
Representative Henry Waxman, D-Calif., will be a key player on the Energy and Commerce Committee but will also chair the House Government Reform Committee, which will likely investigate the Bush administration’s environmental malfeasance. A Waxman aide astutely noted that Congress would have to build a record through hearings on global warming before charging to legislate.
One interesting test of the new Democratic majority’s environmental resolve actually will come before it officially takes control. The issue involves the Bush administration’s nomination of Susan Dudley to head the White House Office of Management and Budget’s regulatory review office. It is a powerful post that, behind closed doors, can become a conduit for industry special interests and interfere with agencies such as the EPA.
Dudley has been director of regulatory studies for the Mercatus Center, a “think tank” supported by the oil industry and other businesses and business-funded foundations. Not surprisingly, she has advocated for the positions sought by her patrons—including opposing tougher standards on smog, better airbags, and standards for arsenic in drinking water.
At a confirmation hearing this week, Dudley declared she was “proud of” her controversial positions, which have prompted more than 100 groups, led by Public Citizen and OMB Watch, to oppose her nomination.
(Dudley, by the way, is married to one Brian Mannix, an anti-environmental Bush political appointee to the EPA. I am told that Mannix was a key player behind the scenes in the disgraceful action by EPA to disregard the advice of its scientific advisers in the recent soot decision.)
After the hearing, committee chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, declared, in blind support of the Bush administration, that she would probably vote to support Dudley when her committee reconvenes in December.
Democrats who care about the environment can and should put a hold on this nomination if they want to let President Bush know that things are really going to change in the new Congress.