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

A Greener U.S. Congress

Air Date: Week of

Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi takes the oath of office surrounded by children of Members in the House Chamber at the start of the 116th Congress. (Photo: Phil Nguyen, House of Representatives)

In the 116th United States Congress seated January 3, 2019, Democrats now hold a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly a decade. Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi the House leadership now recognizes the science of climate change and has created a new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, Tiernan Sittenfeld, joins host Steve Curwood to discuss this new environmental majority in the House and related incoming committee chairs.


CURWOOD: From PRI and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Congressional Democrats now hold the House majority for the first time in almost a decade and that will make a difference for environmental affairs. For starters, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has rebooted the old House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming into a new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The Climate Crisis panel doesn’t have subpoena powers, or the ability to advance legislation to the House floor. But speaker Pelosi declared “this committee will be critical to the entire Congress’s mission to respond to the urgency of this threat, while creating the good-paying, green jobs of the future.”

The speaker named six-term Florida Congresswoman Kathy Castor as Climate Crisis chair. She represents the low-lying Tampa area which narrowly avoided catastrophe in October of 2018 during Hurricane Michael. Ms. Castor co-chaired a Democratic House report in May of 2018 about what it called “Trump’s Toxic Team” of environmental officials, detailing allegations of corruption, self-dealing and abuse of taxpayer money at the expense of public health and safety. And of her new role Kathy Castor says, “The Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and the new generation of leaders in Congress -- who understand the scientific imperative -- will tackle the crisis head on. Failure is not an option.”

For insights on some standing committee chairs we called up the Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, Tiernan Sittenfeld.
Welcome to Living on Earth!

SITTENFELD: Hi, thanks so much for having me.

CURWOOD: So big change up there on the House in terms of folks who are now coming into power, who are concerned about environmental protection, huh?

SITTENFELD: Very big change. We are absolutely thrilled to have a pro-environment majority in the House of Representatives and eager to get to work.

CURWOOD: Now, when you say you have a pro-environment majority, you base that on what?

SITTENFELD: So we base it on the enthusiasm and the energy and the expertise of the new members, combined with the returning members. We have a bunch of new members of Congress, who many of them ran on protecting the environment, on fighting the climate crisis. And in fact, 56 of the 62 new members of the House of Representatives supported 100% clean energy by 2050 on the campaign trail.

Rep. Kathy Castor(D-FL) has been named the Chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, previously known as the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming when Speaker Pelosi established it in 2007. (Photo: United States Government, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

CURWOOD: So here we are, it's a new year and a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives for the 116th Congress. So one of the things about being in the majority is that now the senior members of the various committees chair them, and they have all kinds of power from subpoena to holding hearings. So let's talk about some of these new chairs for the committees that are connected to the environment. Frank Pallone, Jr. of New Jersey, will be chairing Energy and Commerce. What do you expect his priorities will be?

SITTENFELD: Frank Pallone is a long time environmentalist, he has a 96% lifetime score on LCV's National Environmental scorecard and we know that he cares deeply about fighting for clean air and clean water, and especially for fighting climate change. And he made clear already after the elections once it was clear that he would be the incoming Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee that he wanted to take early and significant action on climate change. So we're really looking forward to working with him and his staff.

CURWOOD: Now, what do you suppose he will do in terms of his ability to call parts of the administration up to the Hill and ask questions?

SITTENFELD: I expect him to be very tough when it comes to investigating just how much the Trump administration has been in bed with their polluter allies, and we have seen the devastating impacts of climate change as they continue to try to double down on the dirty failed fossil fuel friendly policies of the past. So we expect that to be a real priority for Chairman Pallone.

CURWOOD: Now, over at the House Natural Resources Committee, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona will take over now as Chair; tell me what you expect his agenda will be there?

SITTENFELD: Congressman Grijalva is a real champion when it comes to protecting public lands and wildlife and he has a 96% lifetime score on LCV’s national environmental scorecard, which is quite impressive. He got 100% in 2017, and he's not just a good vote. He really cares when it comes to protecting our public lands, especially our national monuments. He's been a real fighter for full funding and permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. And we see there's going to be lots of oversight opportunities for looking at all of the egregious rollbacks and attacks of public lands protections over the last couple years from the Trump administration.

CURWOOD: Peter DeFazio of Oregon is the incoming Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure. Tell me what you think is on Congressman DeFazio’s agenda as he comes in as Chair?

SITTENFELD: Congressman DeFazio is a long time environmentalist. And we believe that he and the Democrats across the board for the most part are really serious about putting forward an infrastructure proposal that is going to promote clean energy. It's going to promote clean water infrastructure. We hope that it will really be a down payment on the many important needs in addressing climate change across this country. Senator Schumer actually published a great op-ed in the Washington Post in December and sent a letter to President Trump saying that infrastructure was an opportunity to work together and to get something done for the country, but only if it was an opportunity to address the climate crisis and to promote clean energy. So we're really excited about that approach.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about the Incoming Chair now of the Science, Space and Technology committee. That's Eddie Bernice Johnson from Texas. What do you think her agenda is going to be going forward now, as chair of that committee?

SITTENFELD: We've been really excited about some of the remarks and the comments that we've seen from Eddie Bernice Johnson, which could not contrast more strongly with her predecessor more strongly with the Trump administration, which clearly denies basic science, particularly the basic science of climate change. So we think that she is going to work closely with scientists, she's going to rely on science, she's going to promote science. And that's absolutely the way it should be. And we cannot wait to get to work with her.

Tiernan Sittenfeld is the Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. (Photo: Courtesy of League of Conservation Voters)

CURWOOD: In 2018, and even in 2017, we saw a number of cases where federal scientists were being harassed, intimidated, being pushed off of advisory committees and all that sort of thing. What do you think incoming Chairwoman Johnson will do about that situation, the intimidation of our federal scientists?

SITTENFELD: One of the most disgraceful aspects of the Trump administration -- and I know that's a big statement because there's so many things that are so disgraceful about this administration. But the intimidation of scientists, the gagging of scientists, the dismissing of years and years of science and research is so appalling, and it could not be more important to everything that Eddie Bernice Johnson move in a different direction, and more confident she's going to do exactly that.

CURWOOD: With these new House committee chairs and the new Democratic majority, what do you think the house will be able to achieve in the coming years in terms of environmental protection, given that the Senate still remains in Republican hands, as does the White House?

SITTENFELD: We are really excited about the opportunity for this new pro-environment majority in the House of Representatives to make progress when it comes to protecting the environment and public health and especially to combating the climate crisis. That said, as you just noted, we still have a Senate led by Mitch McConnell, who is a climate change denier, and we still have Trump in the White House. So we don't anticipate major climate legislation getting enacted into law. But the oversight opportunities are extremely important to make crystal clear for all people in this country. What is at stake for the air that they breathe, for the water that they drink, for the lands and the wildlife that they cherish. And we really need to understand in a very clear way, who is benefiting -- clearly in this case the polluters, the oil and gas companies, the coal companies -- at the expense of our health of our communities.

CURWOOD: There has been a bipartisan caucus about climate change called the Climate Solutions Caucus, how's that caucus now gonna proceed in the house, do you think?

SITTENFELD: It will be interesting to see how the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus proceeds in the 116th Congress, and that is partly because that caucus was basically decimated, of the 45 Republicans who were part of it, I believe 24 of them lost their seats. But we hope that those Republicans who are left and who remain in that caucus are actually sincere about addressing the climate crisis, and that they're going to want to work across the aisle to make progress. Because of course, if we look back to our bedrock environmental laws, they were passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities and largely signed into law by a Republican president. So historically, the environment enjoys bipartisan support. I think, unfortunately, with the rise of the Koch brothers and Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity and others, that we have seen the environment become more of a partisan issue, really, because the polluter allies on the Republican side have just dragged their party so far to the right and radical direction. But we would love to have Republicans come back and work with us on common sense solutions to addressing the climate crisis. And I think we actually have seen some progress at the state level, even during the Trump administration, with state legislators and Republican governors saying, no, we're still in, we still care about climate change. Obviously, we have to act. So we'd love to see more of that in Congress as we move forward.

CURWOOD: Tiernan, let's step back for a moment and give me the big picture. How do you feel about the future of the house in terms of its ability to protect the public interest in the environment and these coming years?

SITTENFELD: I feel so relieved and so excited that we now have a pro-environment majority in the House of Representatives after years of doing battle with the most anti-environmental House of Representatives ever. And while we still have extreme Republican leadership in the Senate, and we still have Trump in the White House, the opportunity to go back on offense, whether it's doing government oversight and accountability of the Trump administration's efforts to sell out our environment and our health to polluters at every opportunity, or whether it's the opportunity to push for a climate-smart green infrastructure package or to push for 100% clean energy. I feel really optimistic and excited about the opportunity for progress over the next couple of years, with even more progress to come after the 2020 elections.

CURWOOD: Tiernan Sittenfeld is the Senior Vice President of Government Affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. Thanks for taking the time with us Tiernan.

SITTENFELD: Thank you, Steve.



League of Conservation Voters | “2018 Election Debrief: Climate, Environment & Clean Energy Win Nationwide”

LCV’s National Environmental Scorecard (Interactive Map)

Fortune | “Pelosi Names Castor Chair of New Committee to Address Climate Crisis”

Ballotpedia | The 116th United States Congress

CNN | “A historic day in Congress”

Kathy Castor (D-FL) statement on chairing House Climate Crisis Committee


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