In Washington, you can always tell which politicians are running for reelection because they’ll suddenly look for ways to shore up their environmental credentials. Fiscal conservatives will push their colleagues to buy parkland. Senators and representatives of all stripes will spend their weekends planting trees with every hometown Boy Scout troop that will stand still.
So during the 2002 elections it wasn’t terribly surprising to see Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma take the lead on some home state environmental projects. Environmentalists describe Inhofe as one of the most anti-environmental members of the Senate. He’s best known for supporting the oil and natural gas industry. But last year, while he was running for reelection, Inhofe actively lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency to use federal Superfund money to clean up Oklahoma’s Tar Creek Superfund site.
Today, being a flashy environment advocate rarely wins an election. In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, only 2 percent of the voters contacted said that they wanted to hear more about environmental issues from their elected representatives. By contrast, 55 percent were looking for more info-mation about the economy. But candidates who totally ignore environmental issues risk jeopardizing their bid for reelection in all but the most secure districts. Republican and Democratic pollsters agree that the environment is especially important to those hard-to-predict swing voters—the independents and suburban women voters—and carries significant weight in California, Colorado, New Jersey, and the Pacific Northwest.
Republicans concede that, traditionally, the environment has been their Achilles’ heel. That’s why President George W. Bush—who most assuredly is already running for reelection—used his State of the Union Address to begin making the case that he, too, is an environmental advocate. Bush promoted his proposal to rewrite the Clean Air Act through an initiative he cleverly calls the “Clear Skies” proposal. He plugged his “healthy forest” plan, which would allow greater thinning and logging in the national forests in hopes of lessening the threat of catastrophic wildfires in western states. And the president called for $1.2 billion for research to help develop a hydrogen-powered automobile.
Not everyone in the administration is enthusiastic about Bush’s foray into environmentalism. During the State of the Union Address, the cameras caught a wonderful Washington vignette that illustrated the splits within the Bush team. Seconds after Bush mentioned his environmental plans, the TV cameras scanning the audience focused on EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who was applauding wildly. Then she noticed that OMB director Mitch Daniels, who was sitting next to her, was frowning. So she nudged him with her elbow.
Despite President Bush’s State of the Union conversion, he has never ranked the environment as one of his top issues—not when he was governor of Texas and not before the September 11 terrorist attacks. In fact, before September 11, Bush’s popularity poll numbers were sinking dramatically, in large part because of his environmental actions. During his first year in office, Bush’s folks made some major public relations errors. First, the president made headlines when he flip-flopped on his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide, which some studies link to global warming. Second, EPA officials stirred up a hornets’ nest when they considered weakening a Clinton-era rule aimed at ratcheting down the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water. After the environmentalists whipped the public into a frenzy over the arsenic issue, the EPA quietly let the Clinton rule take effect.
In truth, President Bush’s environmental policy is based on the National Energy Strategy that he released in May 2001. That initiative, drawn up by Vice President Dick Cheney, advocates more oil and gas development on public lands, less regulation of coal, and a dramatic push for nuclear power. A former energy industry executive, Cheney doesn’t even like paying lip service to energy conservation and alternative energy sources. As he once put it, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” Early drafts of Cheney’s energy policy so completely ignored green energy proposals that some Republicans leaned on the White House to make changes. The final plan included a laundry list of alternative energy projects, but few of those were new. That’s why it’s especially interesting that the president has hitched his star to efforts to create a hydrogen-powered car.
The week after Cheney unveiled the energy policy, another key event occurred in Washington: Senator Jim Jeffords changed his political affiliation. The longtime liberal Republican became an Independent and threw his support behind the Democrats in the Senate. No one knows if the two events—Cheney’s energy proclamation and Jeffords’s defection—are linked. But it wouldn’t be surprising, given Jeffords’s longtime support for environmental policies rejected by Bush’s energy plan.
Jeffords’s conversion gave the Democrats control of the Senate. Jeffords became chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. And Congress never passed legislation to implement Bush’s energy plan. Bush has successfully used the regulatory branch’s enormous discretion to fulfill the goals of his national energy strategy. But with the Democrats in charge of the Senate, the Bush administration was never able to accomplish some of its more ambitious dreams, such as opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.
Now the Congress is once again in Republican hands. Today’s Senate leadership is significantly more conservative than it was in early 2001, when the GOP last enjoyed control. Consider the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the EPA and the Endangered Species Act. Before the Democrats took over in 2001, Republican Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire headed that panel. Smith, who lost his 2002 bid for reelection, was conservative on most social issues, but he was moderate when it came to the environment. In fact, since the environment committee was created 30 years ago, the panel has been headed by liberals such as Republican Senators Robert Stafford and John Chafee.
This year, however, the panel is in the hands of Senator James Inhofe. The left-leaning League of Conservation Voters gave Inhofe a score of zero on the environment. According to the National Journal’s recent vote rating, Inhofe sided with the conservatives 80 percent of the time during the last session of Congress.
Some significant changes are also in store for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department, national forests, and energy issues. In early 2001, the panel was chaired by Republican Senator Frank Murkowski, who in November was elected governor of Alaska. Murkowski was no radical environmentalist, but he wasn’t the most skillful or powerful member of Congress either. This year, Senator Pete Domenici, a far more politically savvy legislator, is chairman of that committee. Domenici also heads up the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, with authority over energy and water issues. As a result, the New Mexico Republican will wield enormous power over policy decisions and funding for energy issues.
Fewer changes have occurred in the House, where the Republicans have enjoyed political control for the last eight years. During the last Congress, Representative Jim Hansen from Utah chaired the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal lands. The conservative Hansen was not a very aggressive legislator. Now Hansen has retired, and the Republicans have replaced him with California representative Richard Pombo, who has been one of Congress’s most assertive advocates for rewriting the Endangered Species Act and promoting property rights issues.
The new GOP environmental leaders are likely to advocate legislation that is more conservative than President Bush might like to see. Inhofe, for example, isn’t the most enthusiastic supporter of the president’s proposal to rewrite the Clean Air Act. He has argued that Bush’s Clear Skies legislation is too tough on the coal industry. And Pombo will want to overhaul the Endangered Species Act in ways that would anger the environmental community and spark public concern.
The Bush administration has been very clear about its support for an energy-based environmental policy. If you believe the old cliché that the government is like a large ocean liner, this administration has made remarkable progress in moving the ship of state away from the Clinton-era policies aimed at stopping commercial activities on federal wild lands. As a result, environmental activists and Democrats are already criticizing Bush’s environ-mental proposals as radically pro-business.
The administration will continue to use the regulatory system to push its environmental goals; voters generally don’t pay attention to the way the government regulates the environment. But conservative activists say that the White House isn’t enthusiastically endorsing their aggressive environmental legislation. Why? Because Bush is running for reelection. Bush adviser Karl Rove is already plotting out the Bush administration’s domestic policy with a clear eye on how those proposals will be perceived by voters in 2004. Rove knows that conservative legislation could hurt Bush with those important swing voters who played a critical role in the last election.
If the Republican Congress and administration are viewed as siding too often with big business, the public could rise up in protest. It’s happened before. During former president Reagan’s first term, EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford was so extreme in her support for industry and her disdain for the federal laws that she was kicked out of office. Reagan had to bring in GOP statesman William Ruckelshaus to restore the agency’s reputation. After the 1994 Gingrich revolution, Republicans in the House tried to overhaul several environmental laws. The public outrage that resulted caused the Republicans to plummet in the polls. As a result, House Speaker Newt Gingrich told his army to back off.
Bush’s handling of the environment will be far less relevant if the war with Iraq drags on for a long time or if the economy tanks. If the war causes energy prices to soar, you could see a whole different set of political calculations. For example, more members of Congress might be likely to support oil exploration in the Rocky Mountains and off America’s shores. Overall, the environment would take a backseat. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the only environment-related news that made it into the newspapers focused on potential safety problems at nuclear power plants and chemical manufacturing facilities. At a time when the nation is under attack, environ-mental issues understandably take a backseat.
Nonetheless, Bush the candidate will eventually find himself facing off against Democrats with far stronger environmental records. Several candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are already embracing the environment as one of their top issues. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts have become leading champions for regulating carbon dioxide and against drilling in Alaska’s wildlife refuge. Even Senator John Edwards, who hasn’t had the most liberal environmental record during his time in the Senate, has begun talking like a born-again green.
The environment isn’t a critical issue on which voters determine who should be president or senator. But it is one brush stroke in a complex picture that candidates paint of themselves during the campaign. Americans embrace environmental policy as a quality-of-life issue. A clean environment and pristine wild lands have become as important to them as their freedom of speech. They believe that politicians in Washington share those values. They don’t vote based on a candidate’s environmental record unless they perceive that their environmental rights are under attack. But if that happens, God help the candidate who has forgotten that the vast majority of Americans think of themselves as environmentalists.