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Changing of the Guard

The Waterloo Inn proved the appropriate venue for Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA) to witness not just his reelection defeat but a resounding rejection of other politicians eager to roll back environmental regulations, ramp up oil drilling in sensitive ecological areas, and deride or ignore the impact of global warming. When the morning of November 8 dawned, environmentalists and their allies suddenly held the field, after fighting a desperate rearguard action in Congress during the past half-dozen years.

The capture of the House and Senate by Democrats marks an end to the attempts by Pombo and his ilk to rewrite the Endangered Species Act and open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas exploitation, to name just a few of the proposals top Republicans tried ramming through Congress in recent years. Still, veteran environmentalists warn that the power shift on Capitol Hill should be taken with a dose of political realism. “There is cause for good cheer,” says Betsy Loyless, Audubon’s senior vice president for public policy. “But there are likely to be limits to what’s achievable.”

What’s achievable depends in large part on the Democrats who will take over the key chairmanships. Pombo, who headed the House Resources Committee, will likely hand the chairman’s gavel to Nick Rahall (D-WV). The contrast is clear: While Pombo received a failing grade of 17 from the League of Conservation Voters, Rahall scored a lofty 92. “For too long now, this Congress has pursued policies that are out of touch with American expectations for conserving our unique natural and cultural heritage,” he said the day after the election, promising to “restore the balance that has been lost along the way.”

Another welcome change, though one that bears watching, will be John Dingell’s expected takeover of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Michigan Democrat will replace Republican Joe Barton from Texas, who famously harassed climate scientists. Dingell prides himself on being a fierce environmentalist—he and Rahall spoke out strongly against the Bush administration’s attempts to exempt the Defense Department from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the oldest federal conservation law in the country. But he is also an unstinting supporter of U.S. auto manufacturers and, like them, has opposed efforts to improve fuel-economy standards for vehicles, which would decrease tailpipe pollutants that contribute to global warming.

The most dramatic change will no doubt be California Democrat Barbara Boxer’s probable ascension to the chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, previously held by James Inhofe, the Republican from Oklahoma who dismisses global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” After the election results were in, she quickly pledged to make the Senate “once again the environmental leader in protecting the health of our families and our children, and addressing pressing concerns like global warming.”

Still, Boxer’s influence will be limited by the Democrats’ razor-thin Senate majority (51-49) and by George’s Bush presence in the White House. Environmentalists likely will have more luck ensuring that debate in 2007 over the farm bill—the first since 2002—ends up enhancing the conservation programs that preserve habitat on private land. And even Dingell is gung-ho for increasing funding for alternative-energy efforts. Says Anna Aurillo, director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Washington office, “Nobody got elected [in the midterm elections] because they wanted to drill more.”
—Andrew Lawler

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