Thirty years after the first Earth Day in 1970, environmentalists have much to celebrate. Just 25 years ago, for example, the majority of the nation's water was polluted. Today, two-thirds of that precious resource is considered safe, thanks largely to the Clean Water Act.
But despite the broad public support for further efforts to cut pollution and reduce global warming, congressional action on these concerns has been stymied by one major factor: campaign money.
In the 1998 election cycle, individuals and PACs representing the major despoilers of the environment--oil and gas, mining, electric utilities, and the auto industry--gave $48.2 million in federal campaign contributions. By contrast, campaign contributions from environmental groups to federal candidates and parties in the 1998 elections totaled just $814,712. That's a ratio of nearly 60 to 1.
In return for their money, these industries have influenced Congress on a host of important environmental issues, weakening toxic cleanup laws, delaying the implementation of rules meant to protect consumers from unsafe pesticide use, and blocking forward motion on energy policy. But the best example of campaign money's influence might be the obstacles to improving fuel efficiency standards, a major issue for consumers faced with the current spike in gasoline prices.
The biggest step we could take to reduce the threat of global warming would be to increase the fuel efficiency of the 125 million cars and 65 million light trucks and vans on our roads. Federal law currently requires automakers to produce a fleet with an overall efficiency of 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks. According to the Sierra Club, pushing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to 45 and 34 miles per gallon, respectively, in 10 years (a technically achievable goal) would lead to a 140-million-ton reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions and a half-million-ton reduction in gasoline-related hydrocarbon emissions. And consumers would save $71 billion at the gas pump.
But every year since 1995, Congress has barred the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from even studying the feasibility of such steps. And it has gone especially soft on SUVs and minivans, allowing them to be treated as "light trucks"--a category originally meant for pickups used mostly on farms and construction sites--even though most of them are driven by suburbanites heading to work and the mall. Not only are light trucks afforded lower CAFE standards--allowing manufacturers to build bigger, heavier vehicles--but they are also allowed to spew more smog-causing nitrogen oxides than cars and are exempt from the federal gas-guzzler tax.
The first rider blocking the EPA's efforts to improve fuel efficiency was introduced by Texas Republican Tom DeLay. DeLay happens to rank third in the House of Representatives in terms of the total value of the contributions he's received from auto companies, dealers, and unions, all of whom have lobbied to freeze the current efficiency standards in place. He's gotten $66,600 in PAC and large individual contributions from the auto lobby since 1997.
In the Senate, too, the correlation between auto lobby money and votes was clear. Senators voting to block improved CAFE standards received more than twice the campaign contributions from the auto lobby as senators who did not. Even when you exclude Spencer Abraham and Carl Levin from this analysis, who as Michigan's senators have a strong home-state interest in backing the auto industry, the money still matters. The 53 senators not from Michigan who voted to keep the freeze on CAFE standards received an average of $38,573 in PAC and large individual contributions over six years; senators who wanted to improve them received only $19,090. Not surprisingly, the Senate voted 55-40 to stall the implementation of new standards yet again. Overall, the auto lobby has pumped nearly $15 million into federal campaigns since 1997, 64 percent of that money going to Republicans.
In response, environmentalists of course have become committed supporters of far-reaching campaign finance reform. Last year, the Sierra Club board voted to endorse the principles of the Clean Money model, namely public financing for candidates who abide by spending limits. "The main reason many politicians side with the polluters is their never-ending need for campaign cash," said Sierra Club President Chuck McGrady. "Public campaign financing will eliminate the influence of donors who want to weaken environmental laws, and it will shift power back to voters and volunteers."
--Ellen S. Miller and Micah L. Sifry