Shortsighted Strategies Promote Polarization

by John Lawrence

Memo to the House Republican Conference: Summer begins on June 21. Tens of millions of Americans (AKA your constituents) are planning their vacations in the national parks, forests, wilderness areas and monuments. Endangering the ability for Americans to enjoy the natural resources they own is not a clever summer message. And yet, here are, barely past Memorial Day, and the Republican majority is threatening to end funding for the public lands, and maybe deauthorize a few parks as well.

Several years ago, when Republicans actually did shut down the government for a few days, the Number One public protest centered on the inaccessibility of national parks, monuments, etc. The nasty reaction didn’t just come from tourists who discovered the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian were closed: the howls of anger emanated from all across America, yes, even from those conservative bastions whose senators and representatives perorate endlessly about the federal government “stealing” their states’ lands and undermining the tax base. Turns out people in Utah, Arizona, Alaska and Idaho also like to hike, hunt, camp, and park at look-out points.

My experience (as staff director of the House Natural Resources Committee) was that much of the anti-park sentiment voiced by conservatives wasn’t exactly on the level. The rhetoric was terrific – “the war on the West” and all that – and some ideological zealots like Interior Secretary James Watt (who didn’t have to answer to any constituents) might have actually believed it. But Members know that protected public lands promote economic activity and jobs for their constituents. True, when public lands protections conflicted with natural resource development by mining companies, foresters or energy development, there was a genuine battle between preservation and exploitation. But often, conservatives were voicing a reflexive hostility to protection in the name of the detested federal government.

Proposals to “return” federal lands to the states meet with cool reactions from states that are not seeking the management responsibilities and significant costs. I recall when one powerful Western congressman denounced the alleged damage to his district by a parks designation, Democrats offered to deauthorize the park. Of course, he protested that so many hotels, gas stations and restaurants had been developed in proximity to the park that the local economy would be undermined by deauthorization.

The House GOP seems inclined to tamper with the funding pipeline that provides essential money for acquisition and maintenance for hundreds of parks, monuments, wilderness areas, and other public lands, and they run the risk of a furious public reaction for their actions. That funding source is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), created half a century ago and funded by (of all things) revenues from outer continental shelf (OCS) oil and gas development. LCWF also provides assistance to states to manage their public lands. But LWCF is due to expire in September, and disagreements within the GOP threaten to push the parks off the proverbial cliff.

There is nothing particularly new about the disagreement over LWCF’s mission, but we will have to wait to see if reason will prevail and save the national parks. At the same time, Congress will have to figure out whether to fund the repair of crumbling bridges and highways, or allow the Highway Trust Fund to wither away as well. Should be an interesting summer as the Republican majority wrestles with the messy business of governing.

But to be fair, conservatives are not the only ones behaving irrationally these days, and a leading candidate for shortsighted strategists of the year must fall to leading environmental organizations (yes, the same people who are looking to their friends in Congress for help in … funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund).   How better to bump up your standing with your allies in Congress – a select group in the case of the environmental community – than by trashing one of the leading environmentalists because he has a difference of opinion with Big Green.

Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is a 19 year veteran of the House, a conservationist so earnest and unimpeachable that he wears a fluorescent plastic bicycle in his lapel instead of the ubiquitous American flag. Blumenauer has been a staunch proponent for increased bicycle usage (he rides one to work) and used his position on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to promote inclusion of peddle power in the nation’s transportation plans.

Now, as a member of the Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, Blumenauer has indicated he might support President Obama’s Pacific trade initiatives, a position endorsed by Oregon’s senior senator (Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden) and probably a good number of Blumenauer’s constituents who work in technology-related fields that support expanded trade.

Leaving aside the relative merits of TPP and TPA, on which reasonable people can evidently differ, you might think that Blumenauer has the right to take a position on such a policy without suddenly becoming the Judas-Brutus-Benedict Arnold poster child for political betrayal. But you would be wrong.

Leading environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, have decided that an outstanding use of their time and resources would be to launch a searing attack on Congressman Blumenauer. They do not dispute his 95 percent approval lifetime from the League of Conservation Voters. “Representative Blumenauer has been an important champion on climate change and the environment,” admits Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica. But… “we can’t have ‘environmental champions’ supporting a bad trade deal.”

‘Environmental champions,’ in quotes? Really? Does Blumenauer’s apostasy genuinely raise questions about his environmental credentials? Over the past 19 years?

Well, according to a TV ad the environmentalists are running (in Blumenauer’s district, for maximum damage), the trade deal would “devastate our environment and contribute to climate change.”

Now, it is perfectly legitimate to question the shortcomings of the trade agreements’ environmental provisions; past efforts have been largely ineffectual. And one can certainly cite many reasons, from labor impacts to the ceding of congressional authority to placing U.S. law at risk of international court rulings, for opposing this trade plan. But launching an assault on Blumenauer illustrates one of the major reasons that the environmental community has lost so much of its punch on Capitol Hill in recent years.

When the environmental community was young and lean and battling polluters, energy companies, developers and the like, it matched its assertiveness with grassroots political skills and savvy legislative strategizing. Groups like the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action exerted real influence over the Congress not because of the moral righteousness of their cause (righteous though it may be) but because they went into congressional districts and organized, registered voters, targeted real enemies, and made politicians weigh the consequences of voting against sound environmental policy.

But along the way, a lot of these groups became less membership oriented and more Washington-centric. They lost their ability to influence because they lost their ability to mobilize. They sought to influence through pronouncement instead of through organization. They fell under the domination of well-heeled advocates who funded organizations to promote pie-eyed but unrealistic vanity policies while picking unnecessary turf fights with like-minded organizations.

Running expensive hit pieces is no substitute for the grunt work of sustained political organizing. And the reaction it will generate, from many in Congress, is likely to be anger that a loyal friend and dependable ally is treated so shabbily because he dared to disagree on one issue. Alienating key friends is not a smart lobbying strategy.

Of course, there are many green groups that do terrific work and I certainly do not mean to paint everyone with the same brush. But the thuggish attack on Earl Blumenauer illustrates not only the misdirection of environmental energies, but also reminds us that culpability for political intractability (and therefore, the polarization that supposedly everyone decries) is not the exclusive purview of the Tea Party and other right wing dogmatists.

Coincidentally, it was the Pew Research Center that, in a major study last year, illustrated the depth and seriousness of the partisan divide (Pew also runs some of the most respected environmental efforts in the country these days).

The intolerance for divergent views illustrated by the assault on Rep. Blumenauer demonstrates why unraveling the partisanship skein will prove so challenging. As Pew pointed out, “Today 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” With special interests (including the unregulated fat wallets) on both sides attempting to eviscerate anyone who does not demonstrate absolute fealty to their views, it is no wonder that so few legislators are prepared to venture into the political killing zone of pragmatic compromise.

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