In celebration of Earth Day, House Democrats released a video expressing their anger, frustration, and sadness over environmental issues in America and calling for action.
“Speaker Ryan, as we celebrate Earth Day, it’s clear that we need to protect our natural resources, which are so precious to our generation today and to our children’s generation tomorrow,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, says in the video. He and a half-dozen other House members call on their Republican counterparts to protect the environment.
In an era when Congress is known for being gridlocked and extremely partisan, climate change is one of the starkest examples of the differences between Democrats and Republicans. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a difference that isn’t really reflected in the American public. Late last year, the House voted to kill the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to limit carbon emissions from the electricity sector, even though a solid majority of American voters want to limit greenhouse gas emissions. (The effort failed). Two-thirds of the public wants more solar and wind power, but the House has repeatedly tried to kill programs that support those technologies.
So while the House Democrats are asking Republicans to work with them, it’s worth looking at how, this election year, the composition of the House might change. There are dozens of close House races — and many reflect the divide between pro-clean energy, pro-environment policies and continuing America’s fossil fuel dependence.
Take Utah’s fourth district, for instance. According to Republican incumbent Mia Love, “We must also roll back unnecessary EPA regulations, such as the EPA’s new climate change regulations, which will likely lead to the elimination of 336,000 manufacturing jobs in the United States.”
Her energy policy page is titled “Energy Independence” — often used as shorthand for developing fossil fuel resources domestically. Love was in favor of permitting the Keystone XL pipeline and is against federal tax incentives for wind and solar, which have been largely credited with enabling those industries to compete with fossil fuels (which have been subsidized for over a century) and subsequently driving down costs.
Utah’s fourth district will likely be strongly contested — in 2012, the then-Democratic incumbent won by less than 1 percent of the vote. So it makes sense that Love’s Democratic challenger, Doug Owens, who lost by only 5 percent of the vote last time around, is also stressing the need for energy independence. While that might not win him the endorsement of groups like the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Owens crucially supports moving to a clean energy economy.
In Colorado, Rep. Mike Coffman (R) is defending another swing seat, facing a strong challenge from Morgan Carroll — a Democratic candidate LCV did endorse outright.
“The contrast there could not be bigger,” LCV’s Craig Auster told ThinkProgress. Carroll has championed solar and stresses the need for a clean energy economy, while Coffman has “consistently voted against climate action.” Coffman has a 3 percent score on the LCV scorecard, which looks at Congress’ voting record. In a similar scorecard conducted by LCV’s Colorado-based partner, Carroll has a 97 percent score, based on her time in the state senate.
Coffman, a freshman representative, is in the same boat as Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s second district: They both were likely carried to down-ballot victory by strong turnout for the Republican party in the midterm wave election of 2014. In Maine, Poliquin is also facing a strong, female, pro-renewables challenger. As a Maine state legislator, Emily Caine supported weatherization and efficiency programs as well as investments in renewable energy. Caine has also been endorsed by the LCV.
In both Maine and Colorado, there is enough public support for clean energy and environmental protections that candidates who fail to act on climate can face consequences. “[Caine] has been making bringing wind energy into the district a big part of her campaign,” Auster pointed out.
And the LCV is hopeful that the current Republican presidential ticket — almost certainly to be led by either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz — could catalyze Democratic turnout and help put environmentalists back in some of these seats.
“If you’re having a 10-point margin [as we’re seeing between Hillary Clinton and Trump], that’s definitely going to change the dynamic of the down-ballot races,” Auster said.
So it’s races like these — and others around the country — that could tip the balance, if not on the majority, then at least on the negotiations that make up much of Congress’ erstwhile business. Because while it is difficult to imagine the House make-up changing so dramatically as to start increasing environmental regulation or clean energy and efficiency investment, making those things less hard would still be a win.
Under current House leadership, “there has been no hope or possibility of making positive progress through legislation on virtually any environmental issue,” David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, told ThinkProgress.
“They’ve tried to block pretty much every environmental initiative of the Obama administration, including all action on climate change,” he said. “All action to limit pollution from [power] plants, action to protect wetlands and streams under the Clean Water Act, actions to reduce smog — and that’s just a tiny sample.”
The House has repeatedly voted against environmental measures.
For instance, just this month House Republicans sent a letter — largely symbolic — to the White House opposing new offshore drilling regulations. They said the new regulations, introduced by the administration nearly five years after the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout, were overly harsh and could hurt oil investment.
For the most part, the House’s extreme anti-regulation positions — cutting funding for the EPA, for instance — have been stymied by either executive veto or disagreement from the Senate.
“The House has passed legislation that is so radical that it would prevent any new regulations from moving forward — not just in environment, but in any area of public protection,” Goldston said. That has left the majority of environmental and climate action to the Obama administration, which has introduced a series of rules — the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, and more stringent ozone limits, for instance — that fall under existing legislation.
“The administration has been creative and forceful in using its authority under existing law to make progress,” Goldston said. “But at some point that reaches its limits.”
The ultimate extension of the renewable energy tax credits over the winter is what Goldston noted as an “exception” to the House’s broad anti-environmental stance. But exceptions come at a cost. That bill only passed because it was part of a negotiated package that included repealing the oil export ban. (Love and Coffman voted for the package.)
At the moment, the difference between electing a pro-environmental legislator or not comes down to Democrat versus Republican, Goldston said, but it wasn’t always like that.
“In the 1990s, there was often, not always, a pro-environment majority in the House consisting of the bulk of the Democrats and a band of active, environmentally moderate Republicans,” Goldston said. “It’s possible to get a working environmental majority.”
An earlier version of this post misspelled Mr. Auster’s last name. It has been corrected.