November Elections A Victory for Common-Sense Environmentalism

Published January 1, 2003

At both the federal and state levels, the November 2002 elections revealed voters are no longer swayed by the scare tactics and anti-business rhetoric of the country’s leading environmental advocacy groups. The changes to the political landscape could have major implications for how environmental issues will be debated and resolved in the coming years.

Republicans on the Environment

With a few notable exceptions, Northeastern legislators of both parties in Congress and state legislatures tend to favor a larger government role in addressing environment issues and are likely to side with command-and-control approaches. The same holds true for much of the West Coast. Legislators in the rest of the country–that wide swath of red on the 2000 election maps known as Bush country–tend to favor market-based solutions and see people as active stewards of the land rather than hands-off preservationists.

Republicans, even accounting for the regional variation and once again with some notable exceptions, have tended to be more supportive of free-market approaches than their Democratic counterparts. Examples include President George W. Bush’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, his Healthy Forests Initiative, and his support for New Source Review reform and cost-benefit analysis.

Democrats, in contrast, remain wedded to the command-and-control mentality of the past, exaggerating environmental hazards and supporting ever-stricter regulations on manufacturers, car and truck owners, and landowners. The biggest environmental groups on the scene, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, overwhelmingly support Democrats over Republicans in their political advocacy efforts, which are considerable.

Thus, Republican victories at the national and state level can be considered a referendum of sorts on two different approaches to protecting the environment: One, the Democrat approach, focused on scare tactics and anti-market rhetoric; the other, the Republican approach, supporting sound science and market-based approaches to environment issues.

Republican Landslide

Historically, off-year elections have delivered a beating to the President’s party, not just at the federal level, but at the state level as well. Since 1938, the President’s party has lost an average of more than 350 seats in off-year elections. In 2002, however, Republicans gained more than 200 seats in state legislatures.

The GOP’s gains were not disproportionately achieved in the states where President Bush focused his campaign efforts:

  • In Texas, Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1870. For the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, Republicans now control the governor’s mansion and the state legislature.
  • Republicans now control the South Carolina governorship and the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
  • In Arizona, Republicans assumed control of what had been a deadlocked Senate.
  • In Colorado, Republicans took back control of the state senate, which Democrats won just two years ago.
  • In Missouri, Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1955.
  • In Wisconsin, Republicans gained control of the state senate (though they lost the governorship).
  • In the House of Representatives in both Indiana and North Carolina, Republicans forged a tie from what had previously been Democratic control.

The only noteworthy Democratic gains occurred in Illinois and the Oregon senate. The success of Illinois Democrats was largely expected after Republican candidates, tarnished by scandal, ran largely issue-less campaigns.

“Republicans could end up with a majority of all seats for the first time since 1952,” noted a press release issued by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Roughly 7,400 elected state legislators serve the 50 states.

Before the November elections, Democrats controlled 51 percent of the nation’s state legislative seats. But Republicans now control 21 state legislatures, as opposed to just 17 before the elections. Democrats control 17 legislatures, as opposed to 18 before the elections. Eleven states have split party control; the Nebraska unicameral legislature is nonpartisan.

Victory for Free Markets

The failure of command-and-control environmentalists to prevail at the federal level in 2000 had forced them to take their campaigns to the states. Republican victories at the state level, therefore, are significant not only for what they reflected about Americans’ preferred approach to environment issues, but also for what they portend regarding the future of the environmental movement.

Bills regarding greenhouse gas emissions, land use restrictions, alternative energy mandates, and even car and truck fuel economy are being advanced in many state legislatures, part of a national strategy coordinated by large liberal grantmakers and Washington-based environmental advocacy groups. The Bush administration has largely opposed such initiatives at the federal level, but prior to November 5, the Left was plainly gaining ground in the state arena.

The November 2002 elections strengthened the position of free-market environmentalists to defend against such initiatives … and also served notice to legislators of both parties that the backers of command-and-control environmentalism will be punished in future elections.

It is hardly surprising that the Republicans’ strength was especially evident in the nation’s heartland, where most legislatures changed from Democratic to Republican control. Here, citizens have been sorely rankled by federal intervention in local environment issues, and the alarmist and anti-business rhetoric of the liberal national environmental groups rang hollow. What was once the birthplace of agrarian economic populism may be turning into the stronghold of free-market environmental populism.

Impact at the Federal Level, Too

Numbers on the national level are not as striking as at the state level, but the impact on national environmental policy could be just as dramatic. Republicans picked up just a few seats in the House of Representatives and Senate. Nevertheless, the November elections marked the first time in modern history that the President’s party made gains in both legislative houses–taking full control of one in the process–during the President’s first off-year election.

After the defection of James Jeffords (I-Vermont) from the Republican Party, Democratic control of the Senate’s leadership led to the defeat of such free-market initiatives as resource recovery in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even when a bipartisan Senate majority supported the initiative. While command-and-control interests retain the power of the filibuster, a filibuster is a poor substitute for the power of chairmanships and the Senate majority leadership post.

With Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) removed from his position as Senate Majority Leader, market-averse environmentalists are wishing they had cut deals on logging, the energy bill, and a large assortment of other environmental issues while they had the power to do so.

New Chairs Support Free-Market Approaches

Before Jeffords’ defection during the most recent legislative session, Republican control of the Senate gave New Hampshire’s Bob Smith the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Smith was frequently sympathetic to command-and-control environmental positions. Things changed little when Jeffords was named chair after Democrats gained control of the Senate. The League of Conservation Voters has praised both Smith and Jeffords for carrying its command-and-control agenda.

But Smith is no longer in the Senate, and Oklahoma’s James Inhofe has assumed chairmanship of the committee and has promised to inject the real-world experiences of Western and Heartland Americans into the formulation of federal environment policy. Inhofe’s Web site offers a synopsis of the senator’s environmental priorities:

“Refusing to be railroaded by environmental proposals and schemes that merely sound good on the surface, he asks tough questions. What are the true benefits vs. the true costs? Is it based on sound science? Will it work? How will it affect property owners, local communities, ordinary citizens, and taxpayers? Is the policy fiscally responsible?”

A similar transformation has occurred in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. New Mexico’s Pete Domenici has been appointed to chair the committee, and he also promises the first-hand experiences of Westerners will be carefully heeded in upcoming energy and environmental debates.

Domenici favors removing the yoke of restrictive regulation from energy producers, and he supports a balanced approach to national energy policy. A supporter of resource recovery in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Domenici has promised the full Senate will finally have a chance to vote either for or against ANWR resource recovery.

What Will Bush Do?

Reckless anti-market environmental proposals in many states will likely be shelved following the Republican victories. At the federal level, much will depend on how the Bush administration reacts to GOP gains.

When Republicans controlled the Senate during the first half of the past legislative session, Bush frequently staked out free-market positions during the initial round of debate, but then compromised when faced with political pressure from the Left. The most high-profile example took place during the arsenic debate in the spring of 2001. With Bush unwilling to expend valuable political capital on any but the most important issues, such as Kyoto and ANWR, the free-market agenda often lost out despite the Republican majority.

While Bush’s past should give free-market environmentalists pause, the 108th session of Congress may be different. In the November 2002 elections, voters proved the rhetoric and agenda of radical anti-market environmentalists doesn’t win elections. That may be the encouragement Bush needs to steer the nation back to common-sense environmentalism.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.