Senate Majority Change Could Alter Environmental Politics

Published November 7, 2014

Political analysts are rapidly reaching a consensus that the recent election was a repudiation of President Obama’s failed policies, and although environmental issues were not the primary focus of the elections, the attention they received indicates a strong rejection of the Obama administration’s environmental policies.

Colorado and Oregon defeated referenda that would have required the labeling of genetically modified foods. A similar referendum was previously defeated in California. Many analysts consider those three states to be bellwethers for green issues. Both sides spent millions of dollars on advocacy regarding the referenda, but ultimately the voters followed science rather than emotion and acknowledged genetically modified foods are safe and don’t warrant special labeling requirements meant by environmental activists as a way to ostracize biotech foods. If such requirements don’t succeed in states largely considered among the nation’s greenest, they are unlikely to succeed elsewhere.

Energy issues, especially the Keystone XL Pipeline Project, were important in a few races. Despite numerous studies and two U.S. State Department reports all concluding the Keystone XL expansion would be environmentally benign, President Obama has steadfastly refused to approve it. This has kept energy prices from falling and has damaged our relations with vital energy ally Canada. Over time, canceling Keystone will harm the environment, as Canadian oil ends up being moved by train or ships, both of which use more energy and are significantly more prone to spills than pipelines.

Supporters of the president on this issue lost, increasing the Republican majority in the House and flipping the Senate from Democrat to Republican. Democrat hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer spent $74 million trying to make Keystone XL and global warming wedge issues in select races around the country. He got little return on his investment. His NextGen Climate Action PAC spent millions on candidates in Colorado and Iowa and on ads in Florida. Senators-elect Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) are likely to support the pipeline, and the money Steyer spent in Florida apparently went out with the tide. 

Obama still has a strong hand, despite the lack of public support for his policies. Unable to count on legislative agreement even from some in his own party on climate and energy issues, Obama has imposed rules throughout his presidency using executive and regulatory agency actions. The Republicans lack a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, much less a veto-proof bloc in either house of Congress, and hence they cannot overturn the president’s previously enacted environmental policies.

However, both House and Senate leaders can now offer up-or-down votes on positive environment and energy laws, such as approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline and ending unwarranted subsidies for energy and agricultural interests. That would force the president to veto good legislation. He and his party had previously been protected from having to take stands on such issues because departing Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrat-controlled Senate didn’t allow such bills to come up for votes. Now those votes can happen, and the president and his party will be held accountable.

The new majority can also use the power of the purse to limit the damage from executive actions and regulatory agencies. Congress can deny funding for new environmental and energy regulations they do not believe serve the best interests of the nation, and it can zero out funding for existing programs.

By attaching such funding provisions to “must-pass” bills, such as those that fund federal agencies, or to legislation the president really wants, Congress can essentially force Obama to veto bills he has called for over relatively minor and comparatively unimportant side issues. These limited actions could have resounding positive effects.