Voters Rebuke Environmental Extremism in Oberstar Defeat

Published November 29, 2010

In a powerful rebuke of environmental extremism and a proposed law that would enable the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assert unprecedented authority under the Clean Water Act, Minnesota voters removed 18-term Democratic Congressman James Oberstar from office in the Nov. 2 midterm elections.

Huge Political Upset
To many pundits the defeat of long-serving Democratic Congressman Oberstar by a political newcomer, Republican candidate Chip Cravaack, was one of the November elections’ biggest upsets. The stunning upset ended the career of a politician defined by his support for an extreme environmental activist agenda including cap-and-trade and expansive enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and federal wetlands regulations

Prior to the November election, Oberstar had never received less than 59 percent of the vote. But on Nov. 2, he garnered only 47 percent of the vote, 1 percent less than his GOP opponent.

‘Flat Earth’ Comment Backfired
One of the last straws for voters occurred during Oberstar’s October 19 debate with Cravaack in Duluth.

The chairman of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee angrily responded to criticism of his support for cap-and-trade legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by declaring, “Well, I’m sorry if the Flat Earth Society over here doesn’t believe it.”

The crowd booed heartily, symbolizing Oberstar’s growing disconnect with voters in his district.

Then, in a debate with Cravaak shortly before the election, Oberstar was booed by his Duluth audience when he tried to explain his support for the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.

Signature Water Bill
In recent years Oberstar had sought to expand federal regulation of wetlands and other bodies of water, which put him at odds with farmers and other landowners in his predominantly rural district.

Originally known as the “Clean Water Restoration Act” and recently renamed the “America’s Commitment to Clean Water Act,” Oberstar’s bill would have brought vast stretches of rural America under Washington’s direct control.

Specifically, his bill would amend the 1972 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act (CWA), to replace the term “navigable” with “waters of the United States.” By doing so, the CWA would be expanded to encompass all waters currently used, used in the past, or possibly susceptible to commercial use in the future, including all interstate and international waters and all other waters and their tributaries, including intrastate lakes, rivers, streams, mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, ponds, meadows, and sloughs.

The bill was aimed at overturning two recent Supreme Court decisions restricting application of the CWA.

Bill Was Vigorously Opposed
Enthusiastically backed by environmental groups, the bill is vigorously opposed by a wide variety of grassroots citizens’ groups, agricultural producers, foresters, and state and local governments. The National Association of Counties and the Minnesota Association of Counties have fought the bill tooth-and-nail.

Oberstar never succeeded in getting his controversial legislation to the House floor for a vote, but he continued pushing for the bill right up until the November election. A watered-down version of his bill cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last year, but it was never brought to the floor, where it faced a certain filibuster.

Nothing even remotely resembling the Oberstar bill is given any chance of seeing the light of day when the new, 112th Congress convenes in January.

“Expansion of federal authority under this legislation would create a cumbersome
permitting process, resulting in unnecessary and costly delays,” said Don Munks, former Water Quality Committee Chair for the National Association of Counties.

Water Bill Sealed Doom
Oberstar’s legislation was a defining issue in his defeat, says Don Parmeter, cochairman of the Minnesota-based National Water & Conservation Alliance.

“The citizens of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District have historically and aggressively opposed this kind of expansive federal legislation,” said Parmeter, a former pollution-control engineer who has lived in Oberstar’s district for 30 years. “Mr. Oberstar had won reelection since 1974 by such wide margins that he failed to see how people in water-rich northern Minnesota would be economically devastated by his legislation.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. D. Brady Nelson ([email protected]) is a Milwaukee-based freelance economist.