Don't be a Stooge: What's at stake in the Republican assault on environmental protection

Congress’ departure from Washington for its annual August recess is a traditional time to take stock of what our legislators have been up to.  In recent years, this has too often degenerated into mere lampooning, obscuring how deadly in earnest right-wing Republicans are and how much is at stake. 

            In the environmental arena, in particular, analyses that broadly ridicule Congress or engage in mere head-shaking about gridlock miss the real story – an ongoing, serious and relentless Republican-led assault on the foundations of environmental protection – and of regulation to protect the public, more generally – in both chambers of Congress.    

            There’s a real danger that this is gradually just being accepted as the new normal – the kind of normalized acceptance of bad behavior that the right laments in other realms.  House Republican attacks on the environment start being treated like the weather – just an inevitable part of daily life, something occasionally worthy of idle comment but that nothing can be done about. 

            Here are just a few examples of how far-reaching and beyond any norms Republican attacks have become:

  • House Republicans have attached more than 50 anti-environmental riders to fiscal 2015 spending bills (with more in the wings) to block an astonishing array of environmental activities -- everything from limiting carbon pollution to improving energy efficiency to protecting waters to saving endangered species to extending federal protection to fragile lands.  The riders would even block calculating what the benefits might be if we addressed climate change.  And they would block energy standards from appliances, standards developed under bipartisan legislation that built on a long track record of success.    

Back in 1995, the last time Republicans took over the Congress, they added 17 riders to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency.  That was front-page news, provoking an uproar, and a successful bipartisan effort to remove the provisions.  Now, House Republicans, virtually without dissent in their ranks, strike out at every aspect of environmental protection in a spending bill and it feels like no one bats an eye, all just assuming the Senate will stop them.

  • House Republicans have voted unanimously to remake the entire regulatory system in a way that would make it impossible for any new public protections to be put in place for the foreseeable future.  Senate Republicans have tried to follow suit.  The most clear and clearly egregious example of this is the so-called REINS Act, which would prevent any regulation from going into effect unless approved by both houses of Congress, a sure strategy for inaction and one that the Congress and the nation decided to reject as early as 1890, after it had failed the public and allowed robber barons to take advantage of everyone in sight. 

The latest effort along these lines is a bill approved by a second House committee this month – the wonderfully named SCRUB Act – to create a commission that would go through federal regulations for five years, recommending ones to cut (but nothing about gaps in protections).  The Committee had to pull back its original, unconstitutional version of the bill, which would have enabled the commission, single-handedly, to repeal public protections, sometimes with less than a majority vote.  But that bill certainly made clear how far the right wants to go.

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) tried to rewrite law and regulatory practice by forcing a vote to reverse a climate change standard before it was even final.  McConnell tried to invoke the Congressional Review Act even though it clearly was meant to apply only to final actions by agencies.  And McConnell was attacking a standard that would apply only to new power plants – as if we should blithely allow new plants to worsen climate problems we already know how to address.  

             One could go on and on.  After all, according to House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats, the House has cast 192 anti-environmental votes so far this Congress. 

             The point is that this record should not be greeted with a shrug or cynical laughter.  It’s unprecedented and it’s no mere game.  If not for the vigilance of Senate Democrats, this ideological and well funded crusade, would already have rewritten fundamentals of American law. 

            The public already has had to learn once, the hard way, how seriously to take ideological intransigence.  Not enough people believed Tea Party Republicans when they said repeatedly that they’d shut the government down.  Corporate Republicans especially seemed unable to fathom that folks they had helped put in office could be serious about a shutdown, or even more startlingly, about default. 

Similarly, when it comes to the environment, the Tea Party-driven Republican ideological agenda is hidden in plain sight.  If anyone is caught off-guard by future rollbacks of protections or a government shut-down caused by an impasse over anti-environmental riders, it won’t be the fault of the Republicans, who have been brazen in carrying out their agenda (if not about who’s helping them).

 Yet many still talk and write about Congress as if it’s some kind of Three Stooges movie – seemingly full of mayhem, but no one ever gets hurt; just a bunch of adults engaging in child’s play for entertaining but meaningless diversion.  In fact, observing Congress these days is more like watching “Pulp Fiction” – the violence may be stylized and self-referential, but it’s still ugly and bloody and can destroy people in harm’s way.

 “Pulp Fiction” too much?  Then, at the very least, one ought to be thinking about how those Three Stooges shorts would have turned out if no one had known how to do the block when fingers started heading into the Stooges’ eyes.