Thomas Elias: California’s congressional clout can stymie betrayal |

Thomas Elias: California’s congressional clout can stymie betrayal

Many voters across America who last year replaced the longtime Republican majority in the House and Senate are feeling betrayed these days, as the Democrats they elected in effect allow President Bush to continue the war in Iraq just as before.

The same polls that showed voters wanted an end to the war also indicated that most trusted Democrats more than Republicans when it comes to caring for the environment and fighting global warming.

But just a month or so after Democrats backed down on the war, some are trying to use their newfound majority status for a different kind of betrayal, this time attempting to override and eliminate the restrictions on greenhouse gases enacted first by California and then by a dozen other states in reaction to Bush inaction.

But unified action by Californians in the House and Senate can stymie that double-cross.

Here’s where things stand: Cleverly burying it deep in a proposed new Democratic-sponsored omnibus energy conservation bill, supporters of both high-polluting coal energy and the big auto companies tried to sneak through a federal law essentially eliminating all state rules controlling greenhouse gas emissions – gases like carbon dioxide, which spew from tailpipes and other sources.

The sneak-attack bill was carried by Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, new chairman of a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee dealing with climate control. Boucher represents a coal-producing district that could suffer some job losses if greenhouse gas restrictions remain in place.

Imagine what the smog situation in California and much of the world would be like today if a similar provision had been inserted into the original federal Clean Air Act of 1970, signed by Republican President Richard Nixon. There would likely be no catalytic converters on cars and trucks. No smokestack scrubbers on industrial chimneys. No hybrid cars and sport utility vehicles. And the air would be far dirtier in California and much of the world.

All those smog-clearing developments came about because California has unique authority under the Clean Air Act to adopt stricter rules than any imposed on the other 49 states. A dozen other states piggy-backing on that authority now routinely adopt all California smog rules within five years of California’s setting them.

But whatever authority Congress grants, it can also rescind. So Boucher and a close ally, Democratic Rep. John Dingle of Michigan – another Energy & Commerce Committee leader long known as the carmakers’ man on Capitol Hill – hit upon the idea of quietly eviscerating much of California’s smog-control independence and preventing this state from cleaning its own air – or leading the world in new clean-air tactics.

But California is a better-than-ever-before position to prevent this from happening. For one thing, no one in the state’s 55-member Congressional delegation backed Boucher’s idea. Of course, no California Republican has yet spoken out against it. But plenty of Democrats have, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. Voters should make sure any Californian who considers voting to advance this measure knows he or she will be marked quickly for electoral extinction.

Normally, the House speaker’s open opposition would be enough to kill a bill like this, but Boucher and Dingle say they will seek to move their bill forward anyway with help from representatives of coal- and car-producing states.

How sneaky was Boucher’s initial approach? In a 10-minute speech to his subcommittee on May 24, he detailed several major provisions of his bill, nominally designed to reduce energy consumption and improve electricity grids around the country. He did not mention the anti-California provision.

But at least one Californian spotted it during the subcommittee proceedings. That was Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, chairman of the Government Oversight Committee and a rank-and-file member of Boucher’s panel. The bill, he said, “would strip states of their existing authorities,” and he promised to fight that.

He may have to fight awhile longer. For this could turn into a battle pitting coastal states with air quality problems against inland states with coal deposits and automotive factories. Pelosi tried to kill the bill, saying “Any proposal that affects California’s landmark efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or eliminates the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases will not have my support.”

But she probably can’t stop Boucher’s bill from reaching a vote on the House floor unless the entire California delegation, Republicans included, stands up for the state’s clean-air prerogatives.

California can be assured of support from congressional delegations from states like Oregon, Washington, Maine, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, all of which usually follow California’s lead on anything smog-related.

But this is one time when California’s huge House delegation cannot stand divided and thus enable the longstanding “anywhere but California” sentiment that often prevails in Congress.

Essentially, any Californian who furthers Boucher’s bill deserves electoral defeat, and all should be made to understand that quickly and firmly.


Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at

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