A Grist interview with Democratic presidential contender Joe Lieberman
Photo: Lieberman for President
Search through the recent archive of Democratic presidential candidate and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s press releases, and here’s a sampling of what you’ll see:
“Lieberman Calls for [EPA Administrator Christie] Whitman to Resign in Protest.” “Lieberman, McCain Offer Plan Harnessing Market Forces to Counter Global Warming.” “Lieberman, Clinton Demand Answers From White House on Suppression of Public Health Information on Ground Zero Air Quality.”
Regularly since President Bush took office, Lieberman has been teaming up with senators on both sides of the aisle to issue direct challenges to the administration on its environmental rollbacks, becoming one of the dominant voices of protest in the media on the subject. “Few responsibilities as a U.S. senator are more sacrosanct to Joe Lieberman than the duty to safeguard the Earth’s natural environment,” reads a statement on his website. And Lieberman has earned the right to make such a statement: He has served as an active member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee since coming to Washington in 1989, and has a 93 percent lifetime environmental voting record from the League of Conservation Voters
But how sacrosanct would environmental responsibilities be to the senator if he became president? Grist caught up with Lieberman between campaign events to ask him just that, and came away with insights on everything from the machinations of the Republican-dominated Congress to lessons from the Talmud on regulating polluters.
Hi, glad to talk to you. I am in a moving vehicle on a cell phone, so if we lose you, we’ll call you back.
Sounds good. Almost weekly for the past two and half years, you’ve been issuing direct challenges to President Bush on his environmental policy. In one of your statements, you liken his assault on the environment to a “tragic epic novel.” Can you elaborate?
This is the most anti-environment administration since the beginning of the environmental movement in the late ’60s — and I am really being quite considered about that, thinking of all the administrations including Reagan, which was hardly pro-environment. But this Bush makes his father look like the president of the Sierra Club.
In reaching this conclusion, which I really do believe the facts justify, what I’m saying is President Bush has broken a broad bipartisan consensus on environmental protection and responded to a very narrow constituency of special interests and of more extreme ideologues. In doing so, he does not reflect mainstream American thinking, not to mention a great number of Republicans, not to mention independents and Democrats. So it’s very consequential. It’s very serious.
Anti-environment Republicans such as [Rep.] Richard Pombo [Calif.] and [Sens.] Pete Domenici [N.M.] and James Inhofe [Okla.] are not only in new positions of authority on the environment, but are outspoken in their hostility toward environmental regulations. Do you think this will cause a split in the Republican Party?
Well, I hope so, to tell you the truth. A small group of moderate Republicans who are pro-environment are no longer in positions of authority and their voices are being drowned out, but they have an historic responsibility to fight back and speak up for what I not only think is right, but I believe is the thinking on the environment of most Republicans in the country, which President Bush has broken away from. Certainly on natural resource conservation — this all began with Teddy Roosevelt. There is such a deeply entrenched conservation legacy in the Republican Party that is being betrayed.
We often hear that this is simply a practical political thing — that the motivation for Bush’s policies is just payback for corporate contributors. But you mentioned in one of your statements that this is a “predetermined hostility,” making the motivations sound more emotional or ideological.
That phrase “predetermined hostility” is from a report that I asked my committee staff to do on Bush’s aggressive environmental changes, and it goes all the way back to day one, literally, of the Bush administration — and that’s why I said “predetermined” — when [White House Chief of Staff] Andy Card froze a series of Clinton administration environmental protections. That’s powerful evidence that they came into office with a predetermined hostility toward previously approved environmental inspections. Some of them ultimately they couldn’t water down — for instance, their effort to [raise the cap on] the permissible level of arsenic in drinking water, which was so extreme that it seemed almost laughable to people. There was so much anger and laughter that they came back pretty close to where the Clinton administration had been. But nonetheless they did chip away at [protections].
As for the ideological underpinnings, there have been enough areas where they are clearly governing from a far-right position — the effort from day one to undermine a constitutional right to choose, for instance, and their effort to define affirmative action as quotas. But if you talk about a consistent pattern that will likely have the most terrible, long-term, and potentially irreversible effects if it isn’t stopped, environmental rollbacks is the one.
And yet there has been very little public outcry on the matter.
Oh, are you ever right. This is the most secretive administration in recent history — not just on the environment — certainly in the 15 years since I’ve been here, and that includes Bush’s father. In very subtle ways, they are taking steps that further shut out public participation or greatly reduce the opportunity for the public to comment on the environmental impacts of actions they’re going to take.
Some of the Bush administration’s [assaults] at the outset were quite frontal and ultimately politically embarrassing to them, like their Kyoto withdrawal and the attempt to alter the limits on arsenic in drinking water. But the much more damaging long-term anti-environment steps they are taking, such as their cost-benefit analyses at [the Office of Management and Budget] are clever, much more under the radar — reducing requirements for scientific evidence or public health evidence. We just fought a battle for New Source Review because for two years [Sen. Jim] Jeffords [I-Vt.] and I tried to get the administration to give us a credible health study that showed that reducing the technology requirements on the power plants would not have an adverse effect on health and they never really did that.
So what seems to be even more alarming than the public’s lack of information is that Congress isn’t getting the information it needs, either.
This is our challenge now — not only to fight back and try to stop the worst environmental measures, but to educate and inform the public, because again I’m convinced that this is part of a larger pattern, which is that Bush ran as a centrist but he’s really governing from the right.
One of my gripes here thematically and substantively: Here’s someone who ran on the pledge that he was going to restore honor to the Oval Office. And we all know what he was talking about. But if on something as critically important to the country’s values and public health as environmental protection you consistently yield to ideological extremists or special interests, you have not restored honor to the Oval Office.
What’s lacking from this administration is accountability. The American public has been denied time and again information it has a legitimate right to know, ranging from who the White House consulted in devising its energy policy to how dangerous the air quality was at Ground Zero in New York after Sept. 11. A very clear pattern of secrecy has been firmly established by this White House: Unless a particular piece of information undergirds an administration policy, you can bet it won’t be shared. They even went so far as to change existing Freedom of Information Act guidelines to allow agencies to release less information.
This aversion to open government makes it extremely difficult for Congress to do its job and it obscures from the public the actual effect of the administration’s governance. For example, as ranking member of the Senate’s chief oversight committee, I have sent numerous letters to agency officials inquiring about their plans and practices covering a wide swath of issues. It is the exception, not the rule, when I receive a responsive answer. Two years ago, the Governmental Affairs Committee was unable to get information it needed to conduct oversight of the administration’s environmental policies until the committee threatened subpoenas for the relevant documents. Last year, the Governmental Affairs Committee was forced to issue subpoenas for White House documents relating to Enron. And remember their resistance to establishing a Sept. 11 commission? Now, why wouldn’t you want to promote a national healing process by investigating that tragedy to the fullest extent? The administration is even making it harder to obtain historical presidential papers!
This is not the way government is supposed to work and it begs the inevitable question of what have they got to hide.
You have a 93 percent lifetime voting record on the environment from the League of Conservation Voters, which is very strong. Several of the other candidates have strong records as well and are wrapping themselves in the environmental mantle. How do you consider yourself different from them?
I am very proud of my environmental record over the course of my career. As Connecticut’s attorney general, I hauled polluters into court and made them pay. In fact, a corporate defense firm had to dedicate a whole wing of its office to defend those suits. He named it the Lieberman wing. I’m proud of that.
I’m proud that one of my first acts as a senator, even before I was sworn in, was to request a seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee in the Senate, because I knew it was from there that I could do the most good to protect and improve our environment. I’m proud of the work I have done to protect Connecticut’s environment — establishing the Long Island Sound Office [of the EPA] in Connecticut to help clean up our sound, authoring the legislation that created our first national [historical site] at Weir Farm, working to create a fish and wildlife refuge along the Connecticut River, succeeding in having the Connecticut River designated as an American Heritage River.
And I’m proud of what I’ve achieved to protect our environment nationally as well: quadrupling the number of EPA investigators, strengthening oil-spill liability to keep our oceans clean, helping to draft the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 and knowing that kids breathe easier than they would have as a result, taking a leading role in the Senate to combat global warming. I am also extremely proud to have worked closely with the environmental community to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the past 15 years.
In the face of war and terrorism, environmentalism has dropped considerably in the polls as a primary issue of public concern. How, when you travel around, do you energize average citizens around these issues, and how central will they be to your campaign?
I absolutely will make the environment a central issue to my campaign, and a very visible one. Protecting the environment is not just a political position to me; it’s a moral commitment. My “Declaration of Energy Independence” was the first policy proposal that I unveiled during my campaign. During this campaign, I will consistently raise my outrage about President Bush’s environmental record. President Bush has focused his attention on the war against terrorism, but he’s been AWOL in the war against environmental pollution. He is standing by as dangers gather.
Can we discuss the Bush administration’s aversion to “command and control” regulations? Is there any logic to their voluntary compliance theory, this central tenet of their beliefs that industry should self-regulate?
Hey, look, one of the great stories in the environmental movement’s history over the last three decades is that there began to develop an ethic that valued environmental protection so powerful that a number of previous polluters got the message and realized it’s not good to be identified as polluters so let’s invest some money in cleaning up air pollution and water pollution. And the Bush administration is constantly citing this as a reason to enter a new era of environmental policy. But the reason it happened is because there were laws and requirements and enforcement and it simply would not have happened otherwise.
So sure, there is room for polluters to understand that it is better to comply with the law than to run aground, than to be identified as a polluter — but in order to create that ethic, you have to have laws and standards and requirements.
Can you give some examples here of where regulations are necessary?
The most interesting and real example is climate change, where the Rio treaty originally set meaningful standards for greenhouse gases and left it up to voluntary action and it just didn’t work. In fact, greenhouse gas emissions went up dramatically. So that’s why Kyoto was adopted: to set caps. Bush’s proposal at best would simply slightly reduce the increase in greenhouse gases [not lower overall emissions levels], and that’s why [Sen.] John McCain [R-Ariz.] and I decided nothing was going to happen in global warming in terms of U.S. contribution to the problem unless we set caps. Unless you enact laws that create a standard and a requirement and make it mandatory, unfortunately little or nothing is going to happen. I don’t find any evidence that just sort of urging polluters to stop polluting makes it happen.
Do you see logic in shifting toward a “New Environmentalism” — shifting beyond the so-called punitive and prescriptive measures of command and control?
There is logic to it, but it only works if there is a clear and tough cap. You can’t just say, “This is a problem, go solve it.” You have to say, “This is a problem, here’s what we’ve got to do, now you figure out the best way to do it.” But you’ve got to do it. And there are some areas where you’re not going to use market-based mechanisms
Market-based mechanisms for reducing pollution — such as the type of cap-and-trade program we have for acid rain, and that Sen. McCain and I have developed for carbon dioxide — work by capping the cumulative emissions at a target level, but do not specify emissions levels for particular locations. This works well for emissions like carbon dioxide that have no acute local effects. It does not work, however, for emissions like mercury that are toxic in acute concentrations. A market-based cap-and-trade program for mercury could result in “hot spot” concentrations that cause acute toxicity to local residents.
And [environmental regulations] only work if you show the polluters that you are prepared to prosecute. The natural human inclination is to get away with what costs the least, and it is by the enforcement of our laws, by the setting of tough laws, that we begin to embrace a value [of environmental stewardship] in law.
I remember years ago, at a conference with congressional members, the business community, and environmentalists, I met a VP of environmental compliance at some chemical company and he said, “Do you know, this all changed when the daughter of the CEO at my company came home and said to him, ‘Hey, Dad, is it true what my friends tell me about what your company is putting into the water?'” Because her friends had read about an environmental enforcement action against the company. And of course they never would have read about that if there wasn’t a health standard that had been violated. The company reasons, “We finally decided that if we are the target of an environmental enforcement action and our company gets a lot of attention, that’s bad for business.” Because people don’t want to buy widgets from a polluter. But none of that works unless there is a law with teeth and the law is enforced.
Especially in the era of corporate governance scandals — of the Enrons and WorldComs — the idea that we can inherently trust business seems a little ludicrous.
Absolutely. There’s a wonderful expression from the Talmud, which says that without government, people would act toward one another like fish would do: The larger ones would swallow the smaller ones. You know, it’s just in our nature. Now, that doesn’t mean government should be everywhere, but government has to set standards to affect behavior and that’s particularly true in the environmental arena.
The Bush administration has led us to believe that these two goals of growing the economy and protecting the environment are radically incompatible. How would you balance these issues as president?
The Bush administration has presented Americans with a false choice. In the long run, environmental protection and economic growth are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing — as the eight years of prosperity and environmental protection during the Clinton administration proved to all. In fact, some of the greatest [economic] opportunities in the 21st century may lie in developing the technology to answer the greatest environmental problems of our time.