Democracy 101: Or, What Does David Vitter Want?

On Tuesday, NRDC received an investigative letter from Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and four of their colleagues, demanding “all documents and communications” between NRDC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on carbon emissions from existing power plants and the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.  (EPA received a similar letter, and presumably has the same documents.)  Vitter is the senior Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Issa is the chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The letter is awash in dark and ominous language about collusion and secrecy, but a close reading – well, anything more than skimming, actually – leads one to wonder:  What exactly is it that NRDC is being accused of?  How does David Vitter think policy should be made?  The more one reads the letter, the more it seems like self-parody, at best.  At worst, it’s a transparent effort to silence anyone promoting policies with which the right wing disagrees.

The letter begins to fall apart with the first sentence.  Vitter and Issa write that they are investigating “allegations” (presumably their own) that EPA and NRDC “are colluding to craft regulatory policy and shape agency action outside of the normal regulatory process.”  What does this mean?  Where’s the collusion?

NRDC exists, in part, to “shape agency action” – just like every other group, right or left, that engages in policy advocacy in Washington.  We do that by formulating proposals and then advocating for them.  That’s what we did here – NRDC’s climate experts developed a proposal, publicly released it, and then met with everyone we could about it – news media, utilities, EPA; you name it.  We even did a YouTube video to publicize our approach.

EPA took the proposal into consideration – it didn’t adopt it outright, and indeed NRDC will be publicly pushing for changes in what EPA proposed.  And EPA considered the proposal not because of some dark intrigue, but because the proposal showed that it was possible to get significant carbon reductions at reasonable cost under current law – something that had not been clear previously.  Given that EPA is required by law to act on carbon pollution, you might think a plan that showed how to cut pollution in a more cost-effective way and with greater state flexibility might win some conservative plaudits, but leave that aside. 

So what exactly is it that Vitter et al. see as wrong with this?  What’s the alternative approach to policymaking that they’re advocating?  Should NRDC not try to meet with EPA to discuss a public proposal?  Vitter and his allies don’t seem to raise objections when industry meets with EPA to make its case.  Is getting someone in public office to agree with some of your ideas now “collusion”?  Sounds more like representative democracy.

The letter claims NRDC played “an outsized role” on these issues, which is apparently the authors’ way of saying that EPA ended up agreeing with some of what NRDC had to say.  What exactly is the problem with this, other than Vitter disagreeing with the policy EPA adopted?  Oh, and the letter also claims NRDC had “unprecedented access to high-level EPA officials” – which is doubtful – but why is it a subject of investigation that we got the chance to make our case?  So did states.  So did industry.

The President had publicly announced that EPA would be working on cutting carbon pollution – that wasn’t exactly a secret.  What happened is the equivalent of EPA announcing it was going to order a pizza.  NRDC said, “We think you should order a cheese pizza.”  Then, months later, EPA ordered a pizza that included cheese.  Conspiracy!

Just how absurdly Vitter and his gang are defining collusion becomes even clearer in what they see as a telling anecdote included in the letter.  They describe a meeting on Pebble Mine – a proposed gold mine in Alaska that would damage fisheries – between NRDC and top EPA officials.  According to the letter, after the meeting, one of those officials sent an e-mail in which he allowed as how NRDC had raised an “intriguing idea.”  Collusion!  Apparently hearing an idea and thinking about it crosses some threshold that can spark an investigation.  This e-mail is actually the proof text in the letter for the charge that something questionable is going on.  Oh, and again, NRDC’s proposal is public – we’ve run ads about it – and it originated with Alaskan communities, not us.

Presumably, Vitter doesn’t think that the many meetings EPA had with industry on the same issue constituted collusion – maybe they avoided legal peril by not offering up any attractive ideas.  By the way, in reality, EPA’s posture on Pebble Mine has been guided by a study by independent scientists on how a mine would affect Bristol Bay, one of the world’s great fisheries.  

The more closely one looks at the letter, the clearer Vitter’s and Issa’s game here becomes.  Vitter and company oppose the proposals EPA has made on climate and Pebble Mine, and they haven’t gotten much traction on attacking them on the merits.  They’re angry and resentful that a President who supports climate action and protecting fisheries got elected.  So they’ve decided to make the policy process sound nefarious.  And in doing so, they get the additional pleasure of using their Congressional authority to harass entities  they don’t like and of trying to get groups like NRDC to think twice before trying to influence policy-makers. 

This would all be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.  Those trying to influence public policy using the normal tools of government should not have to fear investigation from those who oppose their proposals.  Vitter and Issa can litter their letter with sinister adjectives, but they can’t seem to describe any actual untoward activity.  What they object to is that an Administration that got elected on a pro-environment platform is taking pro-environment steps, some of which were advocated in public by pro-environment groups. 

It ought to worry citizens and groups across the ideological spectrum that normal policy advocacy can result in an investigation.  Industry lobbyists, in particular, ought to be thinking twice about the implications of broad document requests to non-governmental entities. 

Vitter and Issa are free to try to block policies they dislike and to try to elect different officials.  That’s Democracy 101.  Using investigations to shut down debate and make the basic process of advocacy sound suspicious – now that’s ominous.      

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