For years, mentions of Earth Day have sprung up each April from members of both parties. In April 2010, Democrats spoke of Earth Day over 150 times, mostly in commemoration of its 40th anniversary. But no Republican has uttered the words “Earth Day” on the House or Senate floor since 2010.
The last to do so was Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, in support of expanding nuclear-power generation. “Forty years ago, at the time of the first Earth Day, Americans became deeply worried about air and water pollution and a population explosion that threatened to overrun the planet’s resources,” reads Alexander’s speech. “Nuclear power was seen as a savior to these environmental dilemmas.” Eight months later, the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in densely populated, nuclear-dependent Japan would set off a new wave of environmental dilemmas.
What explains the apparent Republican aversion to talking about Earth Day, and Democrats’ eagerness to do so? For one thing, Earth Day was founded 44 years ago by a Democratic senator, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Another reason is the increasing polarization of Congress. As recently as 2000, Republican Rep. Benjamin Gilman of New York took to the House floor to say, “From combating global climate change to protecting threatened species to providing clean water, we have a duty to act locally and globally to protect the environment for our present and future generations.” Congressional Republicans like Gilman were rare in the 1990s, but they are seemingly extinct today, as over 40 years of vote scores from the League of Conservation Voters shows.
Since Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970, the League of Conservation Voters has been scoring the votes of members of Congress on environmental matters. Over the past 40 years, members have become increasingly concentrated into two camps: high-scoring Democrats and low-scoring Republicans. But it was not always so.
In 1971, only about a third of all House members received scores less than 20 or greater than 80 on the LCV’s 100-point scale. The other two-thirds fell in between those two poles. But last year, 82 percent of members received high or low scores. The middle ground, in the past occupied largely by moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats, has mostly disappeared, a phenomenon that National Journal‘s own vote ratings also illustrate.
Within each party, the shifts to the ends of the spectrum have been dramatic. In 1971, only 17 percent of House Democrats received LCV scores higher than 80; in 2013, 83 percent scored 80 or higher. Republicans have moved in the opposite direction. In 1971, just 16 percent of House Republicans received scores below 20; in 2013, virtually the entire House Republican Conference—97 percent—received LCV scores below 20, and most of those Republicans received scores below 10. No wonder, then, that House and Senate Republicans don’t talk much about Earth Day anymore.
LCV Environmental Scorecard by Party
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