Muckraker: Grist on Politics

House members averaged a 56 percent on environmental votes in 2008, and senators averaged 57, which by grade-school standards would mean Congress as a whole got a failing grade on the environment. But the news overall was good today as the League of Conservation Voters rolled out its 2008 National Environmental Scorecard, the ruler by which the group rates members of Congress each year on environment-related votes.

Sixty-seven House members and 27 senators earned perfect scores this year. In seven states, both senators earned 100 percent scores: California, Connecticut, Michigan, Montana, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont delegations in the House averaged scores higher than 90 percent.

On the flip side, the senators from Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Carolina all averaged scores of less than 10 percent, and the sole House members from Montana and Wyoming also earned less than 10.

The scorecard looked at 11 Senate votes and 14 House votes selected by leaders of 19 different green groups as the major environmental votes in the second half of the 110th Congress. The majority of the votes included in this year’s tally were on energy-related issues.

“The 2008 scorecard reflects more clearly than perhaps ever before that America is truly at a crossroads when it comes to our energy future,” said LCV Legislative Director Tiernan Sittenfeld. “In the face of gas prices that shot above $4 a gallon, unrest around the world, and increasing global warming pollution, it could not be more obvious that we must reduce our dependence on oil. Unfortunately, given many opportunities to vote for clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency that will improve both our economy and our environment, a vocal minority in Congress clung to the failed energy policies of the past, and blocked much-needed progress.”

Most of the votes LCV tallied this year fell along sharply divided party lines. The average score for Republican senators was 23, while Democratic senators averaged 90. The Democrats’ average would likely have been even higher, but Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden missed many votes while on the campaign trail, and Sen. Ted Kennedy missed a number due to illness. All four of them scored significantly lower this year than they have on past scorecards.

The presidential campaign kept both Obama and his Republican rival John McCain away from D.C. during most of the environment-related votes. As a result, Obama got an 18 percent this year, compared to his 72 percent lifetime average. McCain — who also missed all of the environmental votes on LCV’s 2007 scorecard — got a zero this year, and has a 24 percent lifetime average.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, whom LCV endorsed earlier this week, was the only Republican in the Senate to score a 100 percent.

Republicans, especially in the Senate, were able to block passage of several environmental measures, including the renewable-energy tax-credit extensions that stalled for most of the year before finally getting lumped in with the financial bailout package.

“You saw the minority really link arms on policies, the energy tax extensions being the key one,” said Tim Greeff, LCV deputy legislative director, in an interview with Grist this morning. “Everybody supported that, it was just a matter of how you paid for them. And when it came up to pay for them using tax repeals from Big Oil company subsidies, people just locked down, drew lines in the sand, and said absolutely not.”

But Republicans in tight reelection bids this year scored significantly higher on the 2008 scorecard than they have over their lifetimes. North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who is in a tight race with Democratic challenger Kay Hagan, scored a 55 for 2008, though she has a lifetime score of 12 percent. Oregon’s incumbent Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, who is locked in a close contest with Democrat Jeff Merkley, earned a 91 percent this year, while his lifetime score is just 37. (Smith has also been running ads touting his environmental cred.) Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican facing a challenge from Democrat Al Franken, got a 73 this year, compared to his 33 percent lifetime score.

“If you look at someone like Elizabeth Dole, she has an abysmal lifetime score of 12 percent with us,” said Greeff. “But this year she got 55 percent, because voters in North Carolina care about the environment.” Greeff says that members of Congress who are not usually good environmental voters will often improve in election years, when the public is watching them more closely.

Several members of the Senate who’ve tended to score low are retiring this year, which LCV hopes will help shift the tenor in the 111th Congress. Republican New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, who scored an 18 percent this year and has a 14 lifetime average, is retiring, and the frontrunner to replace him is Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, who scored a 97 percent for his votes in the House this year and maintains a 96 percent lifetime score. In Colorado, polls show that retiring Republican Wayne Allard, possessor of a 9 percent lifetime score and an 18 for 2008, is likely to be replaced by Mark Udall, who has a 99 percent lifetime score and a 92 for 2008.

Greeff predicts that with energy and the economy at the forefront of the political conversation right now, in both the presidential race and down-ticket races across the country, environmental issues will get real attention in the next Congress.

“Energy and environment have become synonymous at this point. You can’t talk about one without impacting the other,” said Greeff. “I think we’ve realized with the economy being thrust to the forefront, what could be a bigger economic stimulus than fundamentally redesigning and recreating the way we use energy in this country?”