Today is the moment of truth for House Republicans. They will vote today on H.R. 1, the Continuing Resolution that the Tea Party has shaped into an assault on basic government services, including environmental protection.
The bill has gotten worse as it has moved through the House this week, accumulating even deeper unnecessary program cuts and more policy earmarks—special exemptions from the law for individual industries. These earmarks will literally result in dirtier air and water, more endangered species and less open space.
But there has been one glimmer of hope. On a few votes, some Republicans have split from the Tea Party, and have voted to preserve sensible protections and programs. But will they now cast a “no” vote when it really counts—on final passage of the bill? Especially members of Congress from more moderate districts will have to decide if they are going to vote for their constituents or cower before the Tea Party. This is, after all, a bill that even the Republican leadership originally thought went too far.
Some history may be instructive here. The last time the House was captured by an insurgent gang of right-wing Republicans, back in 1995, moderates took a stand over provisions that were very similar to what the House is dealing with right now. The first vote the Republican leadership under Newt Gingrich lost in the 104th Congress was on anti-environmental riders on a spending bill.
The conservatives had added 17 anti-environmental riders, blocking EPA from moving ahead with protections for air and water. The Washington Post dubbed them the “riders from Hell.” And on July 28, 1995, 51 Republicans joined with most Democrats to remove the provisions from the bill. It was a pivotal vote—and front page news the next day—that began a long, and eventually successful process of halting environmental assaults. (The effort was led by my boss at the time, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York.)
Nine Eight of the members who were willing to vote for their constituents over the ideologues back in 1995 are still in the House—Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Randy Forbes of Virginia, Steve LaTourette of Ohio, Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Chris Smith of New Jersey, Fred Upton of Michigan, Frank Wolf of Virginia, and Bill Young of Florida.
H.R. 1 is in many ways a more far-reaching effort to roll back environmental protection than was even contemplated in 1995. Polls indicate the American people are as opposed as they were then. Adding riders to a Continuing Resolution that must pass to keep the government open is even less legitimate than loading up a bill early in the appropriations process. These members have greater seniority than they did back then. Will they stand up to the Tea Party?