Breathing turns out to be a bipartisan business
The title of this post isn't a revelation. If it's surprising at all, it's only because there is one highly visible place where it just isn't true: Congress.
The Republican leadership is working hard to make the legislative branch of our government a kind of Bermuda triangle where clean air standards disappear mysteriously down a smokestack never to be seen again. For example, the House of Representatives last week voted 262 to 161 to outright exempt cement kilns—one of the largest sources of mercury pollution in the nation—from the Clean Air Act.
If the bill in question (H.R. 2681) were to become law, it would ensure that between 900 and 2,500 people die preventable deaths due to air pollution every year. Thousands more would suffer from asthma and heart attacks, cases of bronchitis and other respiratory distress. Despite these unconscionable impacts to the public's health, only two Republicans in the entire House opposed the bill—less than 1 percent of all House Republicans.
OK. So supposing that members of Congress are actually the direct representatives of the people, do you think that less than 1 percent of registered Republican voters in the U.S. support clean air protections? Absolutely not!
Look no further than a recent bipartisan poll conducted by Ceres in which 58 percent of Republican respondents said they oppose Congress stopping new clean air standards for coal-fired power plants. The bill to exempt cement kilns from the Clean Air Act would never have passed the House if 58 percent of Republicans (140 members) voted against it.
Greg Strimple of GS Strategy Group, a Republican polling firm that worked jointly with Ceres on the poll, said "Although some in Congress oppose [clean air] rules, the level of support from Republican voters is surprisingly strong. The research clearly demonstrates Republican voters are willing to support new rules to reduce harmful emissions in order to improve public health. Republicans like clean air, too."
Hat tip to Mr. Strimple for the headline, which rings true because clean air isn't actually about politics. It's about health and the ability to live and raise a family in a safe environment, a need and hope we share regardless of our ideological stripes. Republicans in Congress don't see it that way because their actions are frequently directed by the interests of the large polluters that line their pockets.
These polluters—the operators of cement kilns, power plants and other large industrial facilities—tend not to want to spend the modest amount of money it would take to clean up their operations to the point where they aren't killing or sickening their neighbors. Instead, they'd prefer for the rest of us to continue paying those costs in our medical bills, in reduced wages when we have to miss work from being sick, in poorer quality of life. To stoke fear, they are exploiting the recession—a very real problem that needs tending—by ceaselessly declaring that clean air standards are "job-killers."
But scuttling clean air protections isn't the way to heal our economy. Studies by the EPA and numerous independent entities have repeatedly demonstrated that clean air protections are likely to have a positive impact on the economy (not to mention studies that have thoroughly debunked shoddy doomsday economic analyses funded by industry). Voters understand that, too. Seventy-five percent of respondents to the Ceres poll "believe a compelling reason to implement these rules is the boost to local economies and thousands of new jobs that will be created from investments in new technology."
Such a boost has already been sacrificed to politics in some instances. See this insightful piece from Grist's David Roberts on how political calculus by White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley led to the Obama administration's about-face on badly needed ozone standards. Earthjustice recently filed suit against the administration for this politically-motivated delay. My colleague, Raviya Ismail, explains why in this post.
Bill Daley probably wouldn't be too impressed by this latest Ceres poll. During a meeting with public health and environmental advocates during the ozone drama, he reportedly cut off an American Lung Association staffer who produced a poll showing voter support for the EPA with this burst of comity: "I don't give a BLEEP about the poll." But the new Ceres poll matters, as have numerous past polls that show a similar attitude. Taken together, they clearly indicate that clean air is a bipartisan desire, as is the public's desire for politicians to stop holding it hostage to protect the interest of big, rich companies that want to pollute with impunity.