When you can’t have the moon, start a rock collection

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA’s science policy analyst.

Many proponents of efforts to address climate change went into the beginning of the 111th Congress thinking they were going to make some significant headway.

For the first time since 1994, Democrats had the rare fortune of holding the White House coupled with substantial majorities in both the House and Senate. But, while the House was indeed successful in squeezing through comprehensive climate legislation, Senate negotiators could not come to an agreement and the bill died.

Efforts to pass legislation curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions seemed less likely when the House gained 63 Republican seats and Senate Republicans gained six seats after the Nov. 2010 mid-term elections. However, a dissection into the backgrounds and ideologies of individual members of the new Republican majority on energy and environmental issues suggest that  while any major climate change legislation is unlikely, there may exist a few opportunities for incremental successes in decreasing GHG emissions.

During a recent event I attended that was sponsored by the National Journal, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, revealed  a glimpse into his priorities as well as his take on what type of legislation may move forward in the 112th Congress.

Chairman Upton could be referred to as a “born-again” climate skeptic. During the briefing, he stated that while he accepts that the climate is changing, he does not believe the changes are man-made. Upton has joined with Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK) in sponsoring legislation that would limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. Last year, in his attempt to win the committee’s chairmanship and appear more conservative, he removed from his website language stating that climate change is a “serious problem that necessitates serious solutions.”

Delving further into Chairman Upton’s background reveals a somewhat more complex stance on energy and environmental issues. Upton in 2007 successfully spearheaded legislation to phase out incandescent light bulbs in favor of the more energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs, a move that put his prospective chairmanship in jeopardy. Additionally, Upton was among 26 Republicans to vote in favor of the New Direction for Energy Independence, National Security and Consumer Protection Act, an omnibus energy bill that contained a clean energy standard.

Others in the new House majority have also demonstrated support in the recent past to expand the nation’s energy portfolio beyond fossil fuels.  On Aug. 4, 2007, Tom Udall (D-NM) and Todd Russell Platts (R-PA) sponsored an amendment to the Energy Independence bill calling for a 15 percent national renewable electricity standard by 2020. Upton was not among the 32 Republicans who supported the amendment, but a few now-prominent Republicans did, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and Science Committee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) supported both the Udall-Platts amendment and the overall omnibus energy bill. This could partially explain why Wolf treaded lightly on the Obama administration’s proposal for a clean energy standard, only stating that he is “anxious to see the details” without affirming a concrete stance.

A thorough analysis of the current House Republican caucus indicates there may be a number of potential moderates, at least among those whose votes parallel the ideology of their constituents. Currently, thirty-one Republican Members of Congress represent districts carried by Obama in 2008. Of these seats, 13 also went for the 2004 Presidential nominee, John Kerry. The voting tendency of these districts suggests the current Republican members representing them can only tread so far to the right of their progressive constituents. Even taking into account any potential impact of the 2012 census redistricting, these numbers are significant.

The 13 Republican members include freshmen Reps. Sean Duffy (R-WI), Pat Meehan (R-PA), Lou Barletta (R-PA), Steve Stivers (R-OH),  Chip Cravaack (R-MN), Robert Dold (R-IL), Bobby Schilling (R-IL), Allen West (R-FL) as well as Reps. David Reichert (R-WA),  Jim Gerlach (R-PA), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Charles Dent (R-PA) and Charles Bass (R-NH). Of the Members listed, only Rep. West, a tea-party favorite, has broadcast himself as being a far-right conservative.

During the National Journal forum, Chairman Upton touted his bipartisan record of working on successful legislative initiatives with the likes of Edolphus Towns (D-NY), Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) among others. He urged Democrats to look to Republicans and vice versa, noting that bipartisan legislation has a significantly better chance of making it through the Senate, where there is also room for optimism.

As a recent article in POLITICO pointed out, 10 of the 13 Republican freshmen are taking the more traditional freshman Senator approach of learning the process behind the scenes and not throwing partisan bombs and lofty ideological proposals out of the gate. A small handful of the GOP freshmen hail from swing states. Sens. Kelly Ayote (R-NH) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), to name but two, could prove to be key moderates in energy and environmental debates.

As a Congressman, Rep. Kirk was among 34 Republicans who voted against a 2005 bill by then-Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA) to strip the Endangered Species Act authority to designate “critical habitat” for an endangered species. He was also among eight House Republicans to vote in favor of the Democrats’ 2009 comprehensive climate change legislation.

Senator Ayoute’s current stance on the environment appears mixed. As a candidate, she signed a no carbon tax pledge and expressed doubt that human activities are causing climate change.  Yet during a debate with another candidate, Ayoute said that scientific evidence has shown that human activity could have contributed to higher temperatures. However, her record in public service clearly indicates some commitment to curbing pollution. As NH Attorney General, Ayotte joined 12 other attorneys general in signing a 2005 letter to a Senate committee opposing the Clear Skies Act of 2005 because it ignored global climate change. Ayotte also joined two multi-state lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency during the previous administration, arguing that the federal government was weakening environmental protection laws.

Reviewing your Member of Congress’s record with a fine-toothed comb is certainly tedious, but it can potentially lead to the discovery of previously unknown areas of common interest. It’s important to not only understand the positions of Members of Congress, but also the needs and concerns of the communities they represent. Doing so will help you frame your argument, as well as uncover specific topics and opportunities that give your concern resonance. Having a common frame of reference or a starting point of commonality can become an important foundation for moving forward on any proposal or initiative.

We can all work collectively to begin the process of finding common ground and areas where the potential for incremental success may be possible, culminating in the long run towards giant leaps in achievements for the nation.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Stanley

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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