Mitt Romney needs not to worry that Newt Gingrich will cut a figure at odds with the image of the GOP’s presidential nominee, at least on energy and environmental policy. They both offer careers characterized by moments of moderation overtaken by political expediency, adopting positions both outdated and repudiated as they veered to the far right. For an America looking for someone who will ignite an economy that will not only create sustainable jobs but will rely on innovation and clean sources of energy to do it, Gingrich is a vivid reminder how wrong this choice can be.
As a member of Congress, Gingrich hit his all time high on environmental issues in 1993 when he scored 30% according to the League of Conservation Voters. This peak was reached largely based on his support for several wildlife conservation measures, as befitting a man who once fancied a job as a zoo director, but his score the next year was a zero – a signal of things to come. What he really became famous for was a scorched earth approach to politics that catapulted the Republicans into control of the U.S. House in 1995 for the first time in 40 years and landed him in the Speakers chair. The main missile launched in this assault was Gingrich’s brainchild, the Contract with America, which included an unprecedented attack on health, safety and environmental protections in the U.S., all under the name of “regulatory reform.”
The centerpiece of the regulatory reform in the Contract was a proposal that would have given big companies that polluted air, water or food supplies or created hazardous workplaces or consumer products an immense shield from federal agencies charged with protecting the public (such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) by tangling them up with costly red tape and endless litigation. The bill (H.R. 9) had the Orwellian title, “The Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act,” but actually it was the polluter’s holiday and lawyer’s full employment act. After it passed the House, Bob Dole picked up the proposal and tried to run it through the Senate on his way to a run for the White House. But the proposal was so extreme it met stiff bipartisan opposition and was eventually blocked in the Senate despite Dole’s role as Majority Leader.
This pro-polluter provision at the heart of the Contract with America was the granddaddy of the Tea Party’s current plan to turn back the clock on a range of public protections, and should be understood as what is meant by much of the coded language on regulations in candidate stump speeches and the Republican platform. Letting companies decide just how much they want to reduce their own pollution was a bad idea in the 1990s and it’s a bad idea now. Although Gingrich is long gone from the House, his heritage can been seen in such extreme proposals as the Red Tape Reduction and Small Business Job Creation Act (H.R. 4078), which includes the notorious REINS Act, that would in effect prevent or delay most federal regulation regardless of merit.
Still we don’t need much of a decoder ring to see just how far Gingrich has gone off to the right on environmental safeguards when we consider his proposal to replace the Environmental Protection Agency with a new Environmental Solutions Agency. This incredible proposal would have provided a solution for environmental problems in the same way that abolishing colleges would solve the problem of paying for higher education. It essentially would have wiped out the means of dealing with such basic needs as reducing air and water pollution by getting rid of an agency wildly popular with the public. This new creation would have had limited authority, focusing on research and business-friendly partnerships, and would have promoted “clean” coal and a more loosely regulated nuclear power. All this plus no environmental degradation, he promised, which is more than far-fetched given the lack of accountability for polluters that would have resulted.
If Gingrich is most famous for the Contract with America, he may be most infamous for his reversal on climate change. At the same time that Romney as governor of Massachusetts was being for action on climate change before he was against it, Gingrich was coming around to the view that climate change was a serious problem that required action and supported limits on carbon pollution and clean energy policies to help address it. This period of following the facts on the subject eventually led to the memorable moment in 2008 when Gingrich took a seat on the climate couch with Nancy Pelosi.
Later he regretted this reasonable moment, but since the science hadn’t change on climate it is hard to believe that anything other than politics was behind his reversal on the issue. That reversal became most obvious the next year when in the wake of public concern about higher gasoline prices Gingrich responded by publishing “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less,” a book short on real solutions to America’s future energy needs but one long on pandering to the oil industry and economic anxiety.
Let’s note but leave aside what a canard the book was because the U.S. lacks the oil reserves to drill our way to energy sufficiency while more fuel efficient cars as proposed by the Obama administration will save consumers much more money. What the position in the book really did was help Gingrich in his attempt to reposition himself within a party that was increasingly coming under pressure by the fossil fuel industry and eventually the Tea Party to abandon the view that the government should play a role in encouraging innovative, clean and domestic alternatives to our oil dependence. Instead of boldly charting a new energy path for America’s future as a presidential candidate, his proposed energy policies continued this commitment to the old-time fossil energy policies of the past.
So as Gingrich takes his long goodbye into night as a party leader at this convention, the GOP should feel his intellectual legacy of dropping science in favor of politics when pressured by the far right is now safely passed to the Romney ticket. Yet, Gingrich left a clear imprint on the thinking of the current Republican Party, which bodes ill for those looking for new directions for the U.S. energy economy. The GOP and the menu of useful energy choices available to the American people are the lesser for it.