During the recent budget showdown, as House Republicans made their boldest effort yet—and failed, at least for now—to repeal mainstream climate science, Democratic Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts managed to find some dark comedy in the situation. It’s customary during legislative debates for members of Congress to preface their remarks with “I rise” in support of (or opposition to) the bill under consideration. As the GOP majority on the House Energy and Commerce committee prepared to pass a bill prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon pollution, Markey said that although he opposed the bill, “I won’t rise physically, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating around the room.”
After provoking more chuckles by asking whether Republicans also planned to excommunicate Galileo’s finding that the earth revolves around the sun, Markey predicted that HR 910 would pass the full House but be “dead in the Senate.” And so it was. The House passed what environmentalists dubbed the Dirty Air Act on April 7, 255 to 172, with not a single Republican voting against. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, however, could muster only fifty votes for a similar measure, leaving Republicans ten votes short of a filibuster-proof majority.
The backstory here is almost as important as the two votes themselves—and as revealing about how Republicans, the Obama administration and the environmental movement are approaching the battles that surely lie ahead. By pushing so hard for restrictions on the EPA, Republicans made it clear that they view the climate issue as a political winner—red meat for their right-wing base and corporate donors alike. Environmentalists countered by framing the issue as an attack on the EPA—popular with voters—and on public health, with the American Lung Association and kindred organizations joining in accusing HR 910 supporters of putting polluters ahead of children’s health.
Perhaps most valuable, however, was a newfound willingness among Big Green groups to show the White House some tough love. As President Obama has steadily watered down or abandoned many of the environmental promises candidate Obama made in 2008, most major environmental organizations have muted their criticism, apparently calculating that supporting the White House is the surest route to progress and that half a loaf is better than none.
But that calculus may now be under reconsideration, perhaps because it has in fact often yielded much less than half a loaf. Obama’s most recent environmental outrages include a proposal—repeated to Congress at the height of the Fukushima nuclear crisis—to triple, to $54.5 billion a year, the federal loan guarantees taxpayers provide for new nuclear power plants, investments so risky and expensive that Wall Street has long shunned them. (Will Obama stick with his nuclear boosterism now that Japanese authorities have upgraded the Fukushima disaster to a level 7, equal to that of Chernobyl?) Then came the administration’s announcement that it was opening the door to a staggering 2.35 billion tons of new coal mining on Western lands. “When burned, [this] coal threatens to release more than 3.9 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, equal to the annual emissions from 300 coal-fired power plants,” responded the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians in one of the few pushbacks by green groups.
The fight to defend the EPA and Clean Air Act brought out more of a fighting spirit even among establishment environmentalists. As negotiations about a budget deal and possible government shutdown proceeded, the Associated Press reported that the White House had told the Congressional Black Caucus it was open to a deal that would restrict the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The outcry from environmental organizations was swift, and this time it came not just from groups on the activist end of the spectrum. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters and the National Wildlife Federation publicly demanded that Obama make it clear that he would veto such a bill. Even Environmental Defense Fund, normally quite a moderate voice, urged the White House to declare “that children’s health should not be a bargaining chip.”
And guess what? The White House, which until then had had enormous trouble locating its spine, soon announced that the president would indeed veto any budget resolution that restricted EPA authority. Thus the final budget agreement, odious as it was in many respects, did not include the provisions that Big Oil and climate deniers most wanted. They’ll try again, of course. Which is why it’s essential to draw the right lessons from this battle. Being on friendly terms with a politician is fine. But in the rough and tumble of Washington power struggles, elected officials take seriously only those interests that are able—and willing—either to punish or reward them.