In their votes on environmental issues this year, House Republicans from blue places have greens seeing red.
Which is to say that GOP legislators from moderate swing areas, including districts that President Obama carried in 2008, are infuriating environmentalists by joining with their conservative colleagues on votes to obliterate an array of federal regulations. That lockstep loyalty sharply departs from the way swing-district Republicans behaved in 1995, the last time the GOP unseated a Democratic House majority. It also represents a high-stakes bet that anxiety about the economy and disillusionment with Obama have defanged an issue that hurt Republicans previously in such places.
Since regaining the majority, House Republicans have argued incessantly that repealing federal regulations, especially those from the Environmental Protection Agency, is key to accelerating economic growth—a contention that environmentalists and the administration fiercely contest. GOP lawmakers have repeatedly engineered House votes to block or repeal rules from EPA and other agencies, with a series of further rollback measures lined up, like Friday-night flights at LaGuardia, through the fall. In this week’s installment, the House is voting on measures to block EPA rules limiting toxic pollution from cement plants and commercial and industrial boilers.
None of the major House measures is expected to clear the Senate, much less obtain Obama’s signature. But, in a preview of how the GOP would govern if it controlled both chambers, almost all of the bills have passed the House with nearly unanimous support from Republicans, even those representing Democratic-leaning places.
In February, the House voted to block pending EPA regulations limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global climate change; even the GOP members from districts that backed Obama in 2008 voted 59-2 for the bill. (Those were the only dissenting Republican votes.) In April, every voting House Republican (including all 61 from Obama districts) opted to overturn EPA’s scientific finding that climate change posed a public-health threat. Two weeks ago, the Obama-district Republicans voted 56-4 to shelve EPA rules reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants; the 174 other GOP members who voted all backed the measure. Republicans are expected to produce similar numbers for this week’s votes on cement plants and boilers.
In coalescing behind these measures, House Republicans from Democratic-leaning areas are behaving very differently from their mirror image: As many as 20 House Democrats, mostly from Republican-leaning areas, have usually broken with their party to support the antiregulatory proposals. The swing-district Republicans, many of them representing communities where hybrids outnumber pickups, are also placing a very different bet than the GOP lawmakers who represented such areas in the 1990s.
In 1995, newly ascendant House Republicans under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich also targeted a series of environmental regulations. But Gingrich faced growing resistance rooted in the suburbs: The number of House Republicans voting no rose from two on a measure that February to require tougher cost-benefit analysis on regulations, to 34 on legislation in May to dilute the Clean Water Act, to 63 on a measure that failed in November to constrain EPA’s enforcement.
Nothing like that is happening now. Why not? Partly, the answer is that the overall pressure for party loyalty is even greater now than it was then. Green-oriented Republicans no longer have the leadership that venerable moderates such as now-retired Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York provided. And the fossil-fuel industry is amplifying its influence inside the caucus by placing almost all of its chips on Republicans: So far in the 2012 cycle, coal and oil and gas interests have directed about 90 percent of their formidable campaign contributions toward the GOP.
Broader political calculations also help explain the Republican antiregulatory cohesion. One factor, says Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant Christopher Nicholas, is the belief that Obama is so weak that even Republican House members in districts he carried “don’t need to fear him” on these issues. Michael Franc, vice president for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, pinpoints another: With unemployment at 9 percent, Republicans believe that voters are willing to sacrifice almost anything that “looks or smells like it might hinder economic opportunity.”
This week’s United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll paints a more nuanced picture. Although most Americans expressed concern about the economic effects of regulation in general, most also backed the specific EPA rules to limit greenhouse gases and pollution from coal-fired power plants. In the survey, those regulations were especially popular among suburbanites along the East and West Coasts—in the kind of places many of the Obama-district Republicans represent. “As they take these votes and start talking about specifics,” Paul Billings, an American Lung Association vice president, predicts, “that’s where we are going to see greater traction with the public.”
That may be. But the unity that House Republicans have generated against EPA rules also reflects their belief that environmental and public-health groups can’t hurt them politically, even in traditionally sympathetic upscale districts. Unless and until those groups prove them wrong, don’t expect many defectors from the congressional Republican crusade against EPA.
This article appears in the October 8, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.