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Monday, November 22, 2010

The shellacking of the West's public lands

By now we've all heard about the "shellacking" Obama and the Dems got in the last election. For Democrats it was almost universally grim, with some notable exceptions in the Western states (I wrote an overview of the situation for High Country News). And for every Harry Reid or Michael Bennet that managed to cling to his political career, there were several examples of extreme right-wingers winning House seats or even taking complete control of a state Legislature.

It's pretty clear, then, that the Democrats lost the 2010 midterm elections. The question is, who won?
The Western Caucus' Marlboro Man-esque cover for it's "War on Jobs" report
Yes, the Republicans took control of the House, and gained in the Senate. And, yes, many of the winners naturally had an "R" beside their names. But today's Republican party is, well, not really the Republican Party (it sure as hell isn't the party of Lincoln, let alone Teddy Roosevelt or even, for that matter, Nixon). It's more like a lost soul that has, for many years, been possessed by an extremist, shape-shifting parasite that wants to drag the party to the right (alienating the party's moderates). The Tea Party is merely the most recent incarnation of that parasite. And, yes, one might say the Tea Party won the election, except that the Tea Party doesn't really even know what it is. It may have been founded as an anti-tax and -spend movement, but it's now become home to all kinds of fringe factions, including the anti-immigrants, the Christian Right and more.

Really, the 2010 election will go down as the midterm in which the corporate interests secured an even tighter grip on power, at the expense of everyone else. It began back in January, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same rights as people, and could therefore donate to political campaigns without restraint. The result was an unprecedented infusion of corporate cash into these elections -- Sharron Angle's Nevada campaign for Senate spent an estimated $97 per vote. Oil companies funded the anti-emissions cutting measure in California without inhibition (as well as donating millions to mostly Republican candidates). Angle and the California polluting prop. both lost, as did other beneficiaries of bundles of corporate cash. But the corporations won, nonetheless, ushering enough obstructionists into Congress to guarantee a brand of gridlock that will work to their favor.

But there was a quieter and perhaps even more significant power shift in Washington that could have big ramifications for the public lands in the West. A group known as the Congressional Western Congress, a posse of nouveau Sagebrush Rebel politicos, has seized control of many a House committee. That includes Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the wealthiest member of Congress, who will be heading up the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; he'll be backed up by Western Caucus member Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a hard-right Republican from Utah. Arizona's Rep. Jeff Flake will be serving on the House Committee on Natural Resources. Wyoming's Rep. Cynthia Lummis -- who was a facilitator of the Bush assault on public lands in the name of energy independence -- sits on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on the House Natural Resources Committee. And, most significantly, there's Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, who will lead the House Committee on Natural Resources, and his ideological twin Rep. Rob Bishop, of Utah, ranking member of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. (Hastings isn't listed on the Western Caucus' roster, but he should be; Bishop is chairman of the Caucus).
The Western Caucus is preparing to assault all regulations on federal land & mineral (shown in red).
Already, Hastings, Bishop and their gang are planning their attack. They're targeting the "de facto offshore drilling moratorium in the Gulf, potential new monument designations and plans to lock up vast portions of our oceans through an irrational zoning process.” And they're clearly in a position to at least push the Western Caucus' agenda, which will surely include killing new land protection proposals of any kind. In the meantime, they'll be waiting anxiously for the opportunity, after 2012, to bring back as many Bush-era policies as possible, and to go even further. (Update: These guys aren't only going after the public's lands, they're also going after the Constitution, itself).

The Caucus, predictably, touts so-called traditional economies and the need to protect jobs by tearing down regulations on public land. It's an old line, but an effective one, especially in times like these when jobs are so sparse. People would always rather blame the environmentalists and the government for their woes than the real culprits: An economic collapse caused by a lack of regulation on unscrupulous corporations, and simple greed on nearly everyone's part. From its Marlboro Man-like motif of a cowboy getting ready to rope a calf, to its report on Western "job killers," the Caucus takes it a step further, arguing that regulations also kill Western culture, and will be the demise of cowboys, miners and the like (strangely enough, they extend the argument to absurd lengths, suggesting that somehow by limiting ATV traffic in the Utah canyon country, for example, the feds are killing local, traditional economies). 

This false dichotomy appeals even to a greenie's sense of romance and it helps the Caucus project a populist image. Too bad the Western Caucus' wishful policies don't actually help people (unless, that is, you subscribe to the Supreme Court's idea of corporations as people). In its "War on Western Jobs" report, the Caucus argues that taxing oil and gas production is a "job killer" because it will drive the domestic energy producers out of business. We're talking about companies that have raked in record profits in recent years. They can afford to fork out a few more bucks in taxes, methinks, and they'll continue to hire the same workers, to whom they'll pay the same wages for doing the hard and treacherous work of drilling wells. A tax cut won't create more jobs, it will just up the company profits. The "Jobs" report -- the Caucus' manifesto -- takes aim at all types of environmental regulations, from "valuing species over people" to the possibility of the EPA classifying coal combustion waste as hazardous (currently the nasty, heavy metal-laden stuff, which coal plants kick out at a rate of millions of tons per year, is regulated like household garbage, and is a major environmental justice issue). If the Western Caucus really wants to help out the Western working man, it might consider pushing for more regulation of coal ash; but it doesn't and it won't.

In this way, the Western Caucus is a parallel to the Tea Party: Both paradoxically depend on their populist image to achieve their goals which (unwittingly or not) end up helping out the corporations who, both openly and secretly, bankroll the whole deal. It's a bizarre perversion of politics, not to mention logic.

And, you can bet your bolo tie that some of the extra profits that the new guard will facilitate will be going back to Western Caucus candidates in the next election. Hastings pulled in a handsome amount from the oil and gas industry, despite the fact that he really didn't need any help to win. Bishop's big donors include Energy Solutions -- the nuclear waste giant -- and the National Association of Realtors. The list goes on, without too many surprises. 

Two years ago, greens across the West celebrated the departure of the Bush administration and the arrival of a new guard. The celebration ended this November.

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