Partisan Acrimony Is Stalling Cap-and-Trade in the Senate

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s can-do tradition of sensible problem-solving has disappeared.

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My colleague David W. Conover at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center was the Republican staff director at the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, or EPW, from 1999 to 2003. His experience on the committee is a revealing window into the shifting environmental politics of the U.S. Congress and the country.

Cap-and-Trade, as the leading environmental legislation of 2010 is known, has been stymied in the Senate, and the environment committee has now become a hothouse of partisan acrimony. The ranking Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, is actively supporting committee Chair Barbara Boxer's opponent--Carly Fiorina--in California’s Senate campaign.

[See who gets the most from environmental industries.]

Conover’s experience wasn't so long ago, but it recalled a more productive moment in the committee's history. He worked in a Democratic Senate, a Republican Senate, and in a 50-50 Senate. Conover recalls his Democratic committee counterpart, Thomas Sliter, telling him that EPW had its own culture and traditions that defied some of the rabidly partisan politics of the larger Congress.

Sliter told Conover that at times committee Democrats and Republicans will wear “our partisan hats,” and in other moments “our EPW hats.” Sliter urged Conover not to become “frustrated” with the bitter politics in Congress because the committee would still pick its spots when it could pass strong environmental legislation with support from Democrats and Republicans.

Such talk wasn't just idle chit-chat. The committee had a robust tradition of solving problems, passing good environmental protections, and navigating thorny issues. It helped establish the modern architecture of environmental protection. The committee’s recent history is impressive indeed. In the past four decades, the committee has passed the landmark Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Superfund, Safe Drinking Water and Clean Water Acts, and multiple public works (highway and water resource) bills.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rhode Island’s Sen. John Chafee served as the GOP’s ranking member, while other moderate Republicans such as Alan Simpson and James Jeffords also were committee members. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Max Baucus, George Mitchell, and Harry Reid were among the committee's influential Democratic members. Chafee, Baucus and Moynihan were especially adept at working together at the committee level. They eschewed stand-pat rigidity, and they understood how regional politics often trumped partisanship as a dynamic on environmental issues in their negotiating. They achieved significant legislative action. [See who supports Reid.]

Individual members cultivated a larger culture that made policy progress possible. Chafee was an environmentalist with a knack for self-effacement; Conover recalls him telling staff that they worked not just for him but for the environment committee as a whole. Moynihan brought a creative, bold mind and a provocative, constructive approach to policy-making; Baucus was a legislative deal-maker. In more recent times, New Hampshire conservative Republican Bob Smith joined forces with Democrat Bob Graham to pass a crucial piece of legislation restoring the Florida Everglades.

Under Inhofe and Boxer, however, this broad culture of EPW's committee-“hat-wearing” has often shrunk to the vanishing point. Breaking with the spirit of the committee’s legacy, the two leaders are battling each other at every turn—from climate change to wildlife protections to the scope of EPA authority to even the California campaign trail. The committee's can-do tradition of sensible problem-solving has waned along the way.

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