by Michael Conathan
On November 7 the American people woke up to a post-election Washington, D.C., that looks an awful lot like pre-election Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama earned a four-year extension on his lease at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and his Democratic colleagues retained their hold on the Senate, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and his Republican colleagues still control the agenda in the House of Representatives.
Despite historically bad approval ratings for Congress, which actually dipped down into the single digits as recently as last month, 21 of the 22 senators seeking re-election held onto their offices in general elections—10 others retired, and one incumbent lost in a primary election. And with four House seats still awaiting decisions as of this writing, only 25 of the 382 incumbent representatives in general elections lost their races—40 others retired, and 13 were beaten in primary elections—and five of them were running against other incumbents as a result of redistricting changes.
Yet even with the outward appearance of status quo, a deeper look inside the results of last week’s elections shows that when a few key seats change hands, the effects on our oceans and coasts may be striking. There are some new obstacles to overcome, as well as some great opportunities to cultivate new leaders who will prioritize these issues in the 113th Congress.
The president of the United States
On November 6 all eyes gravitated to the Obama/Romney ticket-topping tilt-a-whirl. Coming as a surprise to no one, oceans—besides former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s mockery of their rise at the Republican national convention in Tampa and a brief rebuttal from President Obama in Charlotte—were absent from the campaign trail. Aside from this one brief thrust-and-parry neither candidate bothered to talk much about climate change at all.
Now, however, following President Obama’s surge to victory in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, climate change is gaining prominence in the national political dialogue. A new Rasmussen poll released the week of the election showed that 68 percent of Americans now view climate change as a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem, up from just 46 percent in 2009, continuing a trend that has been emerging in other recent polling showing greater awareness and belief that climate change is a contributing factor to the recent uptick in extreme weather events.
While the two presidential candidates spoke little about climate change during the race, their positions differed greatly. The White House website’s climate change page touts the president’s efforts to combat the problem through efforts including international negotiations, reduction of emissions through a commitment to clean energy, and Environmental Protection Agency regulatory overhauls. By contrast, Gov. Romney’s efforts to downplay the seriousness of the problem came back to bite him in the closing days of the campaign as voters watched dire predictions about the vulnerability of infrastructure in New York City and New Jersey come true with tragic results.
In addition to climate change, President Obama’s re-election means that there is life for his National Ocean Policy—an effort launched by executive order and designed to bring a semblance of cohesiveness to the multitude of federal agencies that have a role in the management of issues that affect our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes. Despite the policy’s intention to streamline and reduce redundancy in government activity and enhance states’ rights by providing support for individual states and regions that opt to manage their coasts according to the policy’s core set of principles, many Republicans, particularly on the House Natural Resources Committee, lambast the policy as another example of “job killing regulations” handed down by the White House. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It was widely anticipated that under a Romney administration, the policy and the National Ocean Council established to support it would have been shelved. With President Obama still in the White House, the policy’s supporters have at least another four years to prove the value of its underlying principles, primarily comprehensive ocean planning.