Elections Boost Environmental Agenda

  • The mid-term elections caused a major power shift in Washington. Democrats say they plan to rev up Congress’ power of oversight. (Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol)

The political landscape in the U.S. changed overnight last week. The Democratic takeover will mean a big shift in policy-making efforts in Washington. Mark Brush has more on how environmental issues played out in the election, and what this new Congress might do on the environmental front:


The political landscape in the U.S. changed overnight last week. The Democratic takeover will mean a big shift in policy-making efforts in Washington. Mark Brush has more on how environmental issues played out in the election, and what this new Congress might do on the environmental front:

Environmentalists say some of their biggest enemies were defeated in the midterm election. And top on their list of the worst environmental offenders was California Congressman Richard Pombo.

(The “Pombo Mambo” plays: a catchy ad jingle whose lyrics expose Richard Pombo’s environmental record, produced and run by the League of Conservation Voters.)

Environmentalists spent millions of dollars on radio and television ads to defeat Pombo, and they say it was money well spent. They came to really despise Pombo because of his work to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Tiernan Sittenfeld is the legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters. She says many Republican committee chairs, such as Richard Pombo, simply obstructed environmental legislation. She says now that will change.

“It’s not that even that Congress has even voted to pass particular pro-environment legislation; it’s that the house leadership and the committee chairs haven’t even allowed such legislation to come to the floor. They haven’t even wanted a debate on it. So I think having different leadership, having different committee chairs who care about protecting the environment, who care about clean air, clean water, and open space is going to be a whole world of difference.”

So now that the Republican leadership is out who is taking their place? One legislator who is expected to gain a lot of power is Democrat John Dingell of Michigan. He will chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Dingell says he, and other Democratic committee chairs will first use their power to make sure that existing environmental laws are being enforced by the Bush Administration.

“This administration has been totally unsupervised by the Congress, and checks and balances which are so important to the Founding Fathers, and legislative oversight, have simply not taken place since the Bush Administration came in.”

Dingell will be joined by many other legislators who are likely to have strong environmental agendas. People like Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid, and Henry Waxman. They have several issues in mind that they feel have been mishandled by the Bush Administration. Top on their list is energy policy and global warming.

On energy, environmental lobbyists say high gas prices have made the issue one that resonates with voters.

Karen Wayland is the legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says the new Congress will revisit the tax breaks and other financial incentives given to oil companies in the last energy bill.

“I think what something the House will do at least will be to look at the royalty relief that Congress has given to the oil companies and sort of try to roll back some of the royalty relief; make the oil companies pay full price for extracting oil from our public lands and then use that money to invest in clean energy.”

Democrats are also expected to make a push for national renewable energy standards, and higher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks.

As for global warming, the Democrats say the Bush White House and the Republicans in Congress have completely ignored the issue. The Democrats are expected to introduce several global warming bills in the next session.

But while the Democrats gained a lot of power, they still will have to work around the threat of a presidential veto. And in the Senate, the republicans still hold more than enough seats to block legislation.

Darren Samuelsohn is a senior reporter with Greenwire, a Washington DC based news service covering energy and environmental policy. Samuelsohn says while the Republicans still hold a lot of power, it’s interesting to see how much of it was eroded overnight.

“As you start to talk about it and think about it, it’s across the board: it’s judges, it’s legislation, it’s oversight. And then the thing that really nobody outside of Washington ever really kind of knows what’s going on about, but the whole huge appropriation – the whole federal budget process. That will now be Democrat controlled and we’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars that get spent every year.”

Samuelsohn says the Democrats will now face the challenge of finding more money for their favorite environmental programs, while at the same time making good on campaign promises to cut the huge federal budget deficit.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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