The odds are good that environmental groups will stop receiving threatening letters from congressional leaders starting next month — letters demanding information about their alleged ties to foreign governments — when the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives.
The congressional green scare of 2018, led by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT), sought to impede the work of environmental groups by accusing them of working on behalf of foreign governments against the interests of the U.S. government and military.
Whether Bishop will hand off his harassment campaign against prominent environmental groups to the Republican-controlled Senate remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the House Natural Resources Committee, with Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) in line to take over as chairman, will discontinue using its power to wage a green scare against environmental groups.
“I’m not interested in a witch hunt into those organizations or others,” Grijalva told ThinkProgress. “I feel that those investigations were more like a SLAPP suit, where you try to intimidate people from taking you to court or from trying to make you accountable or challenging a decision.”
Companies have increasingly been using Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, to intimidate, harass, and silence activists who are working to expose corporate injustices and environmental violations.
Bishop’s weapon of choice against the environmental groups was the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). He sent letters to four environmental groups alleging that they were somehow working as “foreign agents” of China or some other foreign entity because of their work on environmental-protection issues overseas.
But as Grijalva countered, in the United States, the work conducted by environmental groups, occasionally in partnership with organizations in other countries, is “appropriate, legal, and many times necessary.”
Over the past six months, the House Natural Resources Committee has sent letters to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Biological Diversity, and the World Resources Institute demanding documents regarding their ties to foreign officials and environmental activists.
ThinkProgress contacted Bishop’s office at the House Natural Resources Committee to find out if the investigations into environmental groups will continue until the Democrats take control of the House in January. The committee had not responded by the time this article was published.
“Rep. Bishop is one of the most petty and vindictive members of the House, so I highly doubt any senator would stoop to his level of behavior,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Monday in an email to ThinkProgress.
Off and on for decades, Congress has targeted environmental activists, typically at the behest of their corporate benefactors who viewed environmental rules that protect public health and the environment as barriers to larger profits.
The NRDC was the first environmental group targeted by Bishop and his Republican colleagues on the committee. Bishop sent a letter to the NRDC in early June seeking documents related to the group’s relationship with China. The lawmakers claimed the environmental group appeared to be engaging in “self-censorship” on environmental issues in China and “generally refrains from criticizing Chinese officials.”
The NRDC defended its work in China, noting that “as the most populous country on Earth, China has much to do with the kind of world the next generation will inherit, in our country and around the world.”
The Center for Biological Diversity was the second environmental group targeted by Bishop, a strong supporter of the fossil fuels industry and long-time opponent of public lands. Bishop sent a letter to the Center for Biological Diversity seeking documents about the group’s environmental work on the island of Okinawa in Japan. In the letter, the congressman suggested the group’s efforts are being used to impose additional costs on U.S. military activities in Japan. The U.S. military has a large presence on the island.
Bishop’s actions “were completely meritless” and “an abuse of power,” Hartl said Monday.
The Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter in response to the House Natural Resources Committee informing Bishop that the group “was more than willing to come testify about our work in Okinawa in an open, public hearing but we were not going to dignify his harassment tactics with an aura of legitimacy,” Hartl noted.
The group is working on the island of Okinawa to protect the dugong — one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals — from extinction.
Even if the House had not flipped control to the Democrats, the Center for Biological Diversity would have continued its activities on Okinawa because “our activities are and have always been 100 percent compliant with U.S. law,” Hartl said.
Environmental groups have reason to be relieved by Grijalva taking over the committee, Basav Sen, director of the climate justice project at the left-leaning D.C. think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies, told ThinkProgress.
But Sen stressed that “this is not a time for complacency.” There’s a possibility that the Republican-controlled Senate, with assistance from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (WV), “will continue the witch hunt,” Sen said.
“This is a case of offense being the best defense,” Sen added. “Environmental organizations should pressure the House Natural Resources Committee to launch investigations of [President Donald Trump’s] deeply corrupt deregulatory agenda.”