Commentary

Interest Group Misfire

This article appeared in Copley News Service.

Last year’s November election came and went with little change in the political status quo. But not because of a lack of trying on the part of Washington’s many interest groups. Organized labor, for instance, spent tens of millions of dollars attempting to turn Congress back over to the Democrats. However, Big Labor succeeded only in unseating a handful of Republicans, most from the party’s liberal wing.

Labor unions were not the only unofficial adjuncts to the Democratic Party that were disappointed by the election results. So was the environmental lobby.

Environmentalists like to pose as defenders of the public, but they largely represent upper-income elites. Thus, while the environmental lobby can’t rely on coerced contributions, as can union officials, its members have thick checkbooks. According to John Shanahan of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute, environmental PACs spent over a half million dollars in the 1995-1996 election cycle.

These supposedly nonpolitical groups were, in fact, quite partisan. Nineteen out of every $20 went to Democrats. An incredible 96 percent of the candidates targeted for defeat were Republicans. The Sierra Club admitted that it pushed its members to “bird-dog” GOP candidates.

Nor was this all. During the same period the environmental groups spent millions on “education” — $2 million on the 25th Earth Day celebration in 1995 alone. The common theme of these programs was more governmental control, more regulation and spending, and less protection of the rights of individual citizens. Indeed, the collapse of communism abroad has left the environmental movement as one of the few places where the belief in collectivism remains strong.

Yet politics is not the answer to the environment. Much of what the government does today results in a lot of expense but little environmental gain. As Shanahan points out: “At a time when those interested in our environment should be working more closely to refocus the Environmental Protection Agency on its core mission of protecting human health and the environment and away from agency proposals driven by flawed science and special interests, it’s unfortunate that major environmental groups are focused on partisan politics.”

The good news, however, is that the environmental lobby’s misguided political efforts ended up largely for naught. Not that the groups, which so assiduously played on public fears, admitted as much.

“The environmental community has political clout,” declared Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. Members of the new Congress have, hopefully, learned that those who vote against the environment will pay at the polls.”

Of course, Callahan misleadingly equates a vote against expensive, ineffective regulations as-a vote against the environment. Equally significant, she claims influence despite election results which showed the environmental lobby to be a paper tiger.

In a new Alexis de Tocqueville Institute study, Shanahan suggests that “using the LCV scorecard to measure whether Congress’s average LCV score is likely to go up or down in the new Congress is probably the best measure of whether environmental special interests were successful.” His conclusion? The incoming Senate is less likely to vote for the sort of unproductive and costly command-and-control regulation so beloved by the environmental lobby. The incoming House moved only negligibly toward the LCV position.

The environmental groups failed for three reasons. First, while almost everyone cares about the environment, very few treat that issue as a litmus test. For instance, an election exit poll by the Los Angeles limes found that fewer than 6 percent of voters considered the environment to be one of the top two issues. Major environmentalist initiatives went down to defeat in Florida, Maine, Montana and Oregon.

Second, while the environmental groups are well-heeled, their contributions pale compared to the offerings of other special interests. Organized labor, for instance, which often has interests divergent from those of the environmental lobby, raised $35 million in a special assessment alone, on top of vast in-kind contributions. Even in the instances where environmentalist-backed challengers defeated GOP incumbents, the environmental PAC provided only an average of one-half percent of the challengers’ total contributions.

The third point is equally critical. The professional environmentalists are simply wrong. Although real environmental problems exist, air and water in America have been getting cleaner. Many purported crises, such as global warming, are based on dubious scientific models. And market-oriented remedies could better preserve the environment at far less cost than the command-and-control regulations emanating from Washington.

While the returning Republican majority seems shell-shocked by its tough re-election campaign, it need not, as urged by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., among many others, retreat from its promise to retionalize federal environmental controls. The environmental lobby threw everything it had against the largest freshman class in years and came up empty. Now is the time for the Republicans to implement a positive, deregulatory agenda.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.