What Senators Talk About When They Talk About "Collusion"

             Senator David Vitter (R-LA) has been periodically releasing e-mail exchanges between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and NRDC in an effort to prove that we “colluded” in coming up with ways to reduce carbon pollution.  The most recent release was Tuesday. This is part of a broad investigation Senator Vitter has launched with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) into NRDC and EPA’s interactions over climate policy and over Pebble Mine, a proposed gold mine in Alaska.

            The whole investigation is a disturbing and dangerous attempt to stigmatize the normal processes used by citizens to shape government policy, and to shut down voices in the debate over climate action that Senator Vitter doesn’t enjoy hearing.  (See my earlier blog.) The slow trickle of e-mail releases is apparently supposed to work like an intravenous drip of morphine into the body politic, gradually deadening the debate over climate.

            But even a cursory review shows that the e-mails he’s released indicate that nothing is amiss; there’s no collusion, no conspiracy, no problem – just an advocacy group and an agency going about their normal business.  Senator Vitter’s dribble of e-mails shouldn’t even have a placebo effect.

            The most recently released e-mails, for example, include an exchange from early in the Obama Administration about the possibility of EPA hiring one of NRDC’s climate experts.  It’s hard to see what’s objectionable here.  At the time, EPA was looking for climate experts who agreed with the President’s general approach to the issue, and an NRDC staffer wrote to EPA noting, in effect, that he was a climate expert who agreed with the President’s approach.  This is how every Administration fills out its roster.  If this is impermissible collusion, it’s hard to know how any Administration would go about its hiring. 

            But in the end, for whatever reason, EPA did not make a job offer.  So now it’s somehow collusion not to hire someone!  Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  The fact that Senator Vitter could release this innocuous e-mail to argue his case is just one more indication that this investigation is about intimidating groups the Senator disagrees with, not about highlighting real problems.

            The released e-mails also show EPA accepting meetings with NRDC to discuss climate policy.  Again, Senator Vitter may be the only person to find this noteworthy or problematic.  NRDC tries to shape public policy, and climate is one of our top priorities.  EPA is the primary agency with jurisdiction over climate policy.  How could EPA and NRDC not be talking to each other?  And of course, as EPA has noted, it was talking to lots of others, too, including businesses and states. 

            Then there are the e-mails that Senator Vitter describes as showing “close coordination on messaging.”  One of those e-mails actually involves NRDC complaining about EPA messaging, hardly a sign that we had been marching in lock step.  And EPA responded by reiterating a position it already held.   

More broadly, the “messaging” e-mails simply show NRDC offering EPA advice on how agency officials might talk about a goal we openly shared – reducing carbon pollution.  Disallowing discussions about how to talk about shared positions would shut down much of the interaction during working hours in Washington, all along the entire political spectrum.  And in these e-mails, there isn’t even any evidence of EPA seeking the advice.

            One could go through each of the released e-mails this way, but it’s just shooting fish in a barrel.  They all just show that Senator Vitter is trying to cast aspersions on the routine work of a contemporary democracy – that his true intent is to hamstring if not silence those pushing to cut carbon pollution.  With the release of the additional e-mails, this has become clear to many – see for example the articles here and here, and even from less likely voices, like the utility lobbyists here and a fellow at a conservative think tank here.

            It’s no wonder so few are willing to defend Senator Vitter, for much more is at stake here than debate over specific policies.  Using broad Congressional investigative authority to try to shackle opponents is a threat to every interest along the ideological spectrum – non-profit or for-profit, left, middle or right – and to every citizen. 

            Congress has not been especially good at legislating of late.  It should not fill up its time with bullying.