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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Election Wrap-up

Air Date: Week of

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The balance of power in the U.S. Senate will change hands as a result of the recent mid-term elections. Host Steve Curwood talks with Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, about what it could mean for environmental policy.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

The elections on November 5th marked a victory for Republicans across the country. The GOP strengthened its hold on the House of Representatives and won back control of the Senate. Republican leader Trent Lott addressed reporters the morning after.

LOTT: I was delighted to be in the office by seven o'clock, talked to the president just after 7:00 and he started off the conversation by saying, "Majority leader, where are you, still at home?" And I said "No Mr. President, I'm in my office. Let's go to work."

CURWOOD: I'm joined now by Living on Earth's Washington correspondent Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. Anna, let's look ahead now to what the Republican takeover means for the environmental agenda in Congress. What do you see?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, I think we're going to see some big differences in that environmental agenda. In the Senate, in particular, the change of power is going to mean that Republicans are defining what comes to the floor, which laws get created in the first place. The committees are all going to change hands. So, in Energy, for instance, Pete Domenici of New Mexico is going to be the chair of that committee. He generally favors more production when it comes to oil and nuclear.

The Environment and Public Works Committee is going to Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. He tends to be opposed to many regulations, and his score is zero with the League of Conservation voters--obviously not a favorite of the environmental community. So across the board, I think we're going to see a real change in approach to environmental issues.

I talked to Fred Smith. He's the president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This is what he had to say.

SMITH: The paradigm that has dominated environmental policy from 1970 on has been so centralized, it's dominated federal over state. It's been government over private. We have a chance to ask whether that balance was struck right.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve, I think what Fred Smith is really getting at here is that he expects to see Republicans asking some fundamental questions about environmental laws; like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act. We've seen the administration asking those types of questions. Now we've got both houses in Congress in line so we could now really start to see some movement.

But I think we might see some surprises as well, Steve. The Republicans aren't all of one mind when it comes to the environment, obviously. John McCain, for instance, is going to be chairing the Commerce Committee. He's been putting forth some pretty strong statements about climate policy and global warming over the past couple years. I wouldn't be surprised if we see some movement from him on that.

CURWOOD: Anna, you've been talking largely about the Senate's procedural agenda, which will clearly be in the hands of the Republicans. But what about when it comes down to really getting laws passed? When those bills hit the floor, how much power will the Republicans really have? I mean, they'll still only have a slim majority, nowhere close to the crucial 60 votes that are needed to break a filibuster.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well that's true, Steve, and I think that you're going to see that the most controversial issues, like drilling in ANWR, are not going to pass. But the Democrats can't filibuster everything. They're going to have to pick their battles.
I think the real impact here is not going to be so much in what the GOP does, as in what the Democrats can't do. They've been really playing defense, so to speak, over the last couple of years against the House and the White House. Lieberman, Joe Lieberman, for instance, has been investigating Vice President Cheney on his Energy Taskforce. That's not going to go forward anymore. Jim Jeffords has been demanding that the administration show some analysis of the changes it wants to make to the Clean Air Act to show what impact they're going to have on the environment. We're not going to see Jim Inhofe making those kind of requests.

So I think what's really changing here is that the Democrats have been able to control the message that gets out to the media and the public somewhat. They've been able to portray the White House as anti-environment, and now they've really lost control over that message and over what issues are going to get debated. So, that's really where we can see most impact on the environmental agenda, I think.

CURWOOD: Anna, many of the tightest Senate races were the same races where the environment seemed to be a hot issue. I'm thinking of Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota. But in every one of those races, the candidate endorsed by the national environmental groups ended up losing. Tell me, how important do you think the environment is to voters?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well I don't know how much I'd read into that, Steve. I think voters were really focused on some bigger picture issues in this election cycle. We're already in one war. There is the prospect of another one in Iraq.

I asked Deb Callahan this question. She's the president of the League of Conservation voters. This is what she said.

CALLAHAN: The big lesson that we have to learn is there were forces in play last night among the electorate that were really much bigger than environmentalists could control. It's clear that the president and his agenda was foremost in voter's minds. There is a lot going on in this country right now.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve, another way to look at this is that voters did put a lot of emphasis on the environment, but they simply believed the Republican candidates when they said they were pro-environment. They were playing the environment just as hard as the Democrats in a lot of those states that you mentioned, and it's possible that voters listened more to them than they did to the environmentalists who were sort of running alongside them and trying to disprove them.

CURWOOD: Any bet on what we'll see Republicans moving on first when the new Congress starts in January?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I think we're likely to see them moving pretty quickly on the energy front. The House already has its bill. This is a big priority for the administration. What we're probably going to see is Senate Republicans dismantling what Democrats did in this last Congress, and writing a new bill that's much more focused on production, most likely. I think we'll see some bills come forward with regard to public land issues. There was wildfire legislation brought forward this fall in the Senate that didn't move anywhere. That may move more quickly now.

We might also see some action on the National Environmental Policy Act. This is the act, one of the cornerstone environmental laws that requires impact statements and assessments on activities that could harm the environment. And the administration has been moving on several fronts to sort of tweak that and weaken it a bit, and there is interest in Congress to do that, as well. So now, they might really have the momentum to get some of that going in terms of NEPA.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is Living on Earth's Washington correspondent. Thanks Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You're welcome, Steve.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder, “Highway,” MUSIC BY RY COODER (Warner Bros., 1995)]



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