Radicals Suffer Election Losses in Congress

Published January 1, 1999

Environmental groups that have been crowing over Republican losses in the recent national elections may end up eating crow once the 106th Congress begins voting on environmental legislation.

The reason: Despite the loss of five Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, the new Congress will be no more receptive to the environmental movement’s agenda–and possibly even less receptive to it–than the Congress that preceded it.

Over the past two years, the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund (LCV) and the Sierra Club PAC, two of the nation’s wealthiest environmental PACs, have together spent over $3 million to convince the American people that the 105th Congress was one of the most anti-environment Congresses in history. Following the unexpected Republican loss at the polls, the two groups were among the first to claim credit for the victory.

But close examination of the election results shows that the LCV and Sierra Club have little to brag about.

The environmentalist wing of the Republican party took the brunt of the modest GOP losses in the House. Among the Green Republicans who will not be returning to Washington next year are Jon Fox of Pennsylvania , who averaged 66 (out of a possible 100) on the League of Conservation Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard over the past two years; Scott Klug of Wisconsin who averaged 72; and Mike Pappas of New Jersey who averaged 61.

Perhaps even more devastating for the environmental movement was the outcome of the 31 open House seats. Of the 31 victors, only nine, or 29 percent, were endorsed by either the Sierra Club or the League of Conservation Voters.

Even more alarming for the environmental movement is the fact that 10 of 15 Democrats elected to open seats, or 67 percent, identify themselves as “New Democrats,” more moderate and less ideological than most members of their party. Not surprisingly, 4 out of 10 of these Democrats were not endorsed by either the Sierra Club or the League of Conservation Voters.

Environmentalists may thus soon be forced to face the very real possibility that their power in the new House will be diminished, despite Democratic gains.

The situation for environmentalists in the U.S. Senate appears even more bleak. Not only did Democrats fail to gain seats in the Senate, but at least two of the Democrats elected, Senators-elect Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas), are “New Democrats” and will likely vote less consistently with the environmental movement than do other members of their party. Neither was endorsed by the Sierra Club or the LCV, and Lincoln received a score of just 27 from the LCV the last time she served in Congress.

At the same time, the new Republican Senators will likely be more resistant to the environmental movement’s agenda than were Republicans leaving the Senate. Outgoing Senators Lauch Faircloth (R-North Carolina), Alfonse D’Amato (R-New York) and Dan Coats (R-Indiana) received an average LCV score of 22 this past year, close to double the Senate Republican average. New Republican Senators will include Kentucky’s Jim Bunning (LCV rating: 7), Illinois banker Peter Fitzgerald (no LCV rating), and former Ohio Gov. George Voinovich (no LCV rating), all of whom will likely fall at or below the average Republican LCV rating.

Assuming that past LCV ratings provide clues to future voting patterns; that incoming Republican Senators vote with their party; that Senator-elect John Edwards (D-North Carolina) votes with his party; and that Senator-elect Evan Bayh votes with his party no more than 50 percent of the time, the average LCV rating for the eight seats with new Senators will drop from 51 to under 37.

This represents a huge setback for environmentalists.

The most significant setback for environmentalists, however, is that the Republican election debacle precipitated a shake-up of the Republican leadership in the House.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the environmental movement’s best ally in the House. This is true not only because environmentalists could demonize any legislation they disliked by attaching Gingrich’s name to it, but because the speaker frequently worked behind the scenes to advance the environmental movement’s agenda. A former member of the Sierra Club, Speaker Gingrich blocked reform of the Endangered Species Act, preserved the National Biological Survey, and granted Green Republicans like Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York) veto power over all Republican environmental initiatives.

If the 1998 election results are what environmentalists call a victory, one wonders what they would consider a loss.

David A. Ridenour is vice president of National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington DC.