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Reckless: The Political Assault on the American Environmentby Bob Deans, Robert Redford
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global challenge and change. Instead of devoting the next year to embracing opportunity amid turmoil, though, the lawmakers waged the worst legislative assault in history against the commonsense safeguards we all depend on to protect our environment and health. In a single calendar year, the Republican-led House voted nearly 200 times to weaken, block, or delay needed measures that defend our air, water, wildlife, and lands. This book tells the story of that misguided campaign, how it put our nation at risk, and where we need to go from here, for the sake of Americans everywhere, for the sake of our children's future.
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RecklessThe Political Assault on The American Environment
By Bob Deans
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2012 The NRDC Action Fund, Inc.
All right reserved.
Imagine some of the last wild streams in Appalachia buried forever beneath toxic rubble dumped by coal companies that blast ancient mountains to pieces and lay ruin to thousands of acres of land. Picture children born with so much mercury in their formative brains that they come into the world with a strike against them, their mental development impeded, and their ability to learn impaired by the powerful neurotoxin poured into our air from industrial smokestacks. Envision our nation's largest and most important estuary, the Chesapeake Bay, as a barren tidal wasteland, a reeking dead zone of aquatic decay, where dwindling numbers of fish, crabs, and birds struggle to survive; a vacant, brackish, dismal void where algae-blooms choke the life from waters and swimming and fishing are things of the past.
No elected leader would openly advocate that nightmare vision of our environment and health. And yet, it's a fair take on the future that the U.S. House of Representatives voted to create during 2011, part of the single worst legislative assault ever waged against the foundational safeguards that protect our air, water, wildlife, and lands.
With overwhelming support from its Republican majority, and a handful of Democrats, the House voted in February to allow Appalachian waterways to be ravaged by coal companies. It voted in September to defer, indefinitely, rules to reduce the mercury, soot, and other air pollution that factories and power plants spew into our air. And it voted in February to block long overdue plans to save the Chesapeake Bay from being polluted, quite literally, to death.
Those votes, moreover, were just a few salvos in a much wider campaign.
Over the course of 2011, House Republican leaders ordered more than 190 votes on measures that would have weakened environmental safeguards, prevented rules from being enforced, or derailed the introduction of pro-environment policies. The assault began with one of the first pieces of legislation the House took up—an overarching spending bill, H.R. 1—and continued to the body's final action of the year—tacking a demand for White House approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to must-pass legislation extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits. The tally of votes—in committees and by the full House—was compiled by staffers of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and posted on the panel's minority web site, an extraordinary step meant to document the actions of what the site calls "the most anti-environment House in history."
In a year marked by bitter partisanship, the question of environmental protections split the House like no other issue. In lopsided votes one after another, ayes and nays were cast mostly along party lines. All but a handful of the body's 242 Republicans banded together to undermine policies that protect our environment and health, while the vast majority of its 192 Democrats voted the other way. On a few measures, Republicans were joined by a dozen or so Democrats, generally from states heavily dependent on fossil fuel production or use.
The votes targeted the effectiveness of bedrock legislation like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. They went after forward-leaning clean energy policies. And they attacked essential oversight watchdogs like the Environmental Protection Agency. The votes took aim at laws, measures, and institutions put in place with the support of Republicans and Democrats alike, at a time when standing up for nature was a national priority that enjoyed broad bipartisan support. In 2011, though, House Republicans rejected that proud bipartisan past and instead voted for bills favored by oil and gas companies, coal producers, refinery, incinerator and power plant owners, cement factory operators, and other top line polluters. In doing so, they struck at commonsense public oversight and put our environment and health at risk, from the air we breathe to the water we drink, from the mountains to the sea.
"This is the most anti-environmental House of Representatives in history," said the House Energy and Commerce committee's ranking Democrat, Henry Waxman of California, who has served in the House for nearly forty years. "So far this Congress, the House of Representatives, has voted again and again to block action to address climate change, to halt efforts to reduce air and water pollution, to undermine protections for public lands and coastal areas and to weaken the protection of the environment in other ways," Waxman said during a Capitol Hill hearing September 22, 2011.
CONSERVATION IS CONSERVATIVE
It isn't only Democrats who are alarmed at the GOP's concerted assault and the vision of environmental backsliding behind it.
"I've been appalled," said former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. "The vision, I think, is to just do away with the EPA, and I think that is a disaster," she said. "The American people don't want that."
"I am very disappointed," echoed another career Republican, William Reilly, who led the EPA under Bush's father, President George H. W. Bush. In a November 2011 speech, Reilly lambasted members of his party for what he called "demagogic assaults on regulators who are doing the job Congress gave them," in implementing the Clean Air Act amendments that the senior Bush signed.
In separate telephone interviews, both Reilly and Whitman said the long train of anti-environmental votes by House Republicans represents a sharp and abrupt departure for a party that traces its environmental roots to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican who first began protecting public lands from commercial development.
"Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation," Theodore Roosevelt, the first Republican president of the twentieth century, said in 1910. By then, building on what Lincoln began, Roosevelt had created more than fifty federal wildlife reserves and parks, establishing the preservation of our natural heritage as an American priority that has since led us to set aside, as a nation, more than 635 million acres of national parks, forests, refuge areas, waterways, and federally managed lands for posterity.
"Republicans have been part of the environmental movement since the get go," Whitman said, "and it just drives me nuts that we now seem to be walking away from it as if were something bad or we don't believe in science or the environment, because, to me, conservation is conservative, and that ought to be part of what we're about."
A TOXIC BREW
In 2011, though, the Republican Party fell under the sway of the new "tea party" faction, which hews well to the right of the GOP mainstream and is more than twice as hostile toward environmental safeguards, polls show, as traditional Republicans. The tea party movement, moreover, is heavily financed by deep-pocketed industrial polluters, which have long sought to eviscerate environmental protections for the sake of increased profits. Backed by conservative news media and talk show hosts, the tea party and its corporate benefactors pushed House Republicans far off the path of environmental stewardship their party forebears had blazed.
Many Republicans are uneasy with the dramatic shift. Some appear to have succumbed to tea party pressure, or fear of being defeated by tea party challengers, to support anti-environmental measures they figured were unlikely to become law. Indeed, few of the House measures have made it through the Senate, where a razor-thin Democratic majority has either rejected the House environmental bills or not yet acted on them.
"You have a lot of moderate Republicans who generally would not support this legislation, but they saw what happened in 2010, with the rise of the tea party candidates," explained Jim DiPeso, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection, a nonprofit Washington advocacy group. In an effort to appeal to that right-wing base, and draw political distinctions between the GOP and the agenda of President Obama, "The political calculus was made to develop a narrative that government regulation is at the heart of our economic problems," DiPeso said. That's not the case, he said, but "that's the origin of this wave of legislation that you're seeing."
Votes, though, count for something more than simply scoring political points or appeasing the party's more extreme constituents. Votes are how elected leaders publicly signal their priorities and beliefs. And they are the way our democracy provides the rest of us the chance to hold representatives accountable to the people they serve. With a different makeup in the Senate, after all, or a different president in the White House, much of the House GOP vision might come to pass.
Senate Democrats, of late, haven't exactly distinguished themselves as environmental champions. In 2009, a Democrat-led Senate allowed comprehensive energy and climate legislation to die due to filibuster by failing to take up a good bill the House had approved. The next year, the Democratic majority in the Senate allowed the same fate to befall a bill the House passed that would have strengthened safeguards for offshore drilling in the wake of the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Those were tremendous failures at a time when Democrats held a majority of the seats in both houses of Congress.
The midterm elections of 2010, however, gave the Republicans control of the House. Going after needed environmental safeguards is how the party's leaders chose to devote much of their effort and time. That, too, has real consequences for the nation.
Amid the rancor of tax and budget questions, and social dilemmas that both parties have used to drive a political wedge to split their opponents, protecting our environment and health should be goals that rally all sides. After all, there's a strong national consensus in support of those objectives.
Half the nation wants our environmental protections to be strengthened, while another 29 percent want them to be left as they are, the Pew Research Center found in a February 2012 poll of 1,501 adults nationwide. Only 17 percent said those safeguards should be weakened, despite the GOP's year-long effort to denigrate needed protections and those who enforce them. Even among Republican voters, a solid majority—58 percent—favors strengthening environmental protections or leaving them alone, the poll found.
"Environmental and health threats are unambiguous, nonpartisan concerns. They affect us whether we live in a red state or a blue state," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a November 2011 speech at the University of Wisconsin. "Contrary to more divisive issues, people of all backgrounds want swift action when they see these threats in their communities."
For decades, that common support for clean water and air, healthy wildlife and lands, has animated the political exchange in Washington. Politicians debated the scope and reach of environmental protections, to be sure, along lines reflecting robust yet reasoned philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats and even, for that matter, within the parties themselves. In 2011, though, something very different was at play in the House. Congressional observers who recall the strong majorities from both parties that joined to pass landmark environmental protections four decades ago were shocked by the partisan rancor that split and largely paralyzed the Congress in 2011, plunging its public approval ratings to historic lows.
"It's been discouraging," said DiPeso. "A lot of these laws were passed at a time when Republicans and Democrats worked together with some degree of comity to reach a compromise," he said. "That's the kind of dynamic we'd like to see again. Right now, we don't see that."
A CAUSE BEYOND PARTY AND BEYOND FACTIONS
It was Republican President Richard Nixon, after all, who created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and signed into law the foundational National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. That act established the White House Council on Environmental Quality and laid the cornerstone for a new body of federal law based on the need to protect the environment and public health from pollution. That was a signal year for our environment. An offshore blowout gushed four million gallons of crude oil into the waters off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Industrial chemicals coursed so freely through the nation's heartland that Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire. And Los Angeles became the world capital of smog. Against that background of degradation and the urgency it conferred, the groundbreaking National Environmental Policy Act passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 372–15 margin in the House.
"Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions," Nixon told the country in his 1970 State of the Union address. "It has become a common cause of all the people of this country," he said, calling on Congress to strengthen environmental safeguards, invest in cleaner fuels, promote more efficient cars, and crack down on corporate polluters. "Clean air, clean water, open spaces, these should once again be the birthright of every American," said Nixon. "If we act now, they can be."
On Nixon's watch, Congress also passed the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and other fundamental protections. Each was criticized, in its time, by big polluters who claimed the safeguards would cripple our national economy. Instead, we had economic growth averaging 3.2 percent per year during the following decade 1971–1980.
In 1970, the country kicked out $1 trillion worth of goods and services. By 1980, that figure had grown to $2.8 trillion. Since then, our economy has continued to grow, as we've cut the pollution that causes acid rain, lead poisoning, smog, and other threats by 60 percent, saving hundreds of millions of lives and trillions of dollars in health care and clean-up costs, while making life better for Americans everywhere.
"The destiny of our land, the air we breathe, the water we drink, is not in the mystical hands of an uncontrollable agent," Nixon said in a radio address from the Oval Office on valentine's Day 1973, calling on the nation once again to summon the political will to stand up to big polluters for the sake of generations to come. "A future which brings the balancing of our resources—preserving quality with quantity—is a future limited only by the boundaries of our will to get the job done."
For House Republicans, those boundaries were starkly drawn in 2011. Influenced by its tea party wing, corporate lobbyists, and cash donations from powerful industries, Republicans in the House adopted a reckless and radical vision that put polluters first, turning their backs on their party's own history and many conventions of traditional conservative thought. They did so repeatedly under the guise of job creation, a political play on a beleaguered public struggling with the highest unemployment levels since Ronald Reagan was president.
"The people of America understand that the EPA is, in fact, killing jobs," Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-vA, said in October 2011, while advocating for legislation that blocked a new EPA rule to cut air pollution from incinerators and industrial boilers. Griffith is part of the freshman class of Republicans elected to Congress in 2010 by voters stoked on anti-government rage. His campaign received extensive backing from Americans for Prosperity, a political action committee, or PAC, that advocates cuts in taxes and government regulations. It was founded by David Koch. His family's privately held Koch Industries—an oil refining, pipeline, paper, and chemicals conglomerate based in Wichita, Kansas—is the tenth largest polluter in the nation, the University of Massachusetts' Political Economy Research Institute found using EPA emissions data. In railing out against the EPA, which regulates much of the Koch empire, Griffith cited the need to protect jobs and owners of large boilers in his southwest virginia district, asserting that their concerns were poorly understood by regulators "here in the ivory towers of Washington."
In fact, the most authoritative economic data available—from the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics—shows that federal regulations, of all kinds, account for less than 1 percent of American job loss. The truth is, environmental safeguards protect and even create jobs, promote economic growth, and more than pay for themselves through the manifest benefits they provide.
"For decades, corporations and their trade associations have opposed regulations aimed at protecting human health and the environment," states a 2010 report by the conservation arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit public interest organization. "Industry has repeatedly argued that the cost of complying is too high, the benefits to society don't justify the investment, or the regulations will cost jobs," the report continued, citing corporate opposition to everything from getting lead and asbestos out of our homes to putting seat belts and air bags in our cars. "In fact, regulatory requirements to protect the environment, workers and consumers have often led to innovation, increased productivity and new businesses and jobs."
Excerpted from Reckless by Bob Deans Copyright © 2012 by The NRDC Action Fund, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bob Deans is the author of the 2007 book The River Where American Began: A Journey Along the James. He coauthored the 2009 book Clean Energy Common Sense: An American Call to Action on Global Climate Change, and the 2010 book In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and Ending our Oil Addition. A Native of Richmond, Virginia, Deans spent twenty-five years as correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other Cox newspapers before joining the Natural Resources Defense Council and the NRDC Action Fund in 2009. He is a former president of the White House Correspondents Association and lives in Bethesda Maryland with his wife and their three children.
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Eye opening about our government and the destruction of our lands. Mr. Deane is truthful in this writing and is alerting our nation on the corruption in Washington. We will soon be drowning in oil and our land and water will be contaminated. The Republican party has been bought off by groups who want to lift regulations on our safety and the destruction of our lands.