What Would a Democratic House Do to Protect Our Environment?

Chatting about climate, energy, and impeachment with Democratic Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota.
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Flanked by other House Democrats, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, center, speaks as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi listens during a news conference about the Confederate flag on July 9th, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Flanked by other House Democrats, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, center, speaks as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi listens during a news conference about the Confederate flag on July 9th, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

With a little luck, 2019 will open with a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. It would take a lot more luck for the Democrats to control the Senate as well. No matter what happens, there will still be a Republican president. Still, with control of the House and its many powerful committees, Democrats would find themselves in a position to exercise oversight, control the purse strings giving access to federal funds, and otherwise play more of a role in setting the national agenda. So what are they going to do?

As we lurch toward election season, with primaries rolling out across the country and ballots becoming set, I've set out to ask some Democratic House leaders a simple question: What would they do with control that they can't do now? What does an affirmative vision for Democratic leadership look like?

I took these questions to my own congressional representative, Betty McCollum. McCollum is a native of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her political career started on the North St. Paul City Council. She joined the Minnesota legislature in 1993 and came to Congress in 2001. She's now the ranking member—which means the most senior member in the minority party—on one of those House subcommittees that many people have never heard of, but which exercise all kinds of power. But in 2019, she could become chair of the Interior Environment Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. That may not sound impressive, but given the recent abuses by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, not to mention the threat of mining in Minnesota's own boundary waters, McCollum will find herself in a position to act.

I sat down with the congresswoman in her offices in St. Paul, right across the street from the former location of a recycling plant where her grandmother used to work.

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Imagine it's a year from now and the House leadership has changed—what are you planning to do, realistically?

To stop the attacks on science. To get re-engaged with the international community with climate change. To challenge what the administration is doing in both the EPA and the Interior Committee. To put a check and a balance to the best of my ability, to stop these rollbacks that we're seeing on water and air and the way our public lands are being taken away from the public.

With the Trump administration and all the distraction and chaos that they're causing, [it's] like drinking from a fire hose, and then you try to do your regular job on stuff going on that people don't even know about! Like what happened in the Boundary Waters recently. [I was] talking to [Secretary of the Interior Ryan] Zinke in my office over the phone just before the Christmas holiday break; I complimented him about letting this study [of mining impact] go through. And he's on the phone, "Oh yeah, we gotta get it right." And the next day, BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and the Forest Service are in discussion about renewing the leases up there before the study's done.

So, doing the oversight, making sure that there's transparency, [shining] a really bright light on what this administration is doing environmentally.

What are you doing now through your office? How do you try to shine that light? What would be different if you were in the majority?

I'm in the minority. I can't set the agenda. I can't call for the hearings. I can write a letter, but if it doesn't get answered, I'm limited to, you know, calling them out and then letting constituents know.

But in the majority, I'm controlling the power of the purse. And as the chair, [I'm] representing the environmental concerns [on the Interior Environment Subcommittee], not only for my constituents but for people all across the United States. We [would] have control over the finances, so they have to be transparent, respond to our requests, and return our phone calls when we're conducting oversight.

Tell me a bit about that committee; I think that's one of the many important committees and subcommittees not widely visible to the average citizen.

I serve on the defense committee. I'm No. 2 on defense, and certainly everybody feels like defense is easy to talk about. In some ways, it is. It's very clear in our constitution: Our government's responsibility is to keep our union secure, to protect democracy. So people understand that, but when you start talking about work on the Interior, protecting water, air, land—that becomes a little in the weeds. But it is critically important, because without clean air and clean water, we compel future generations to live with huge mistakes.

If you're chair of this committee, obviously you are more likely to get your letters answered. Will you use investigatory power as well?

Yes!

Do you have a sense of what that agenda might look like?

Right now, I would really like to understand the way in which scientists have been told that their expertise is not needed anymore, and, instead, people who have corporate backgrounds from some of the oil and chemical industries, they're welcomed on these boards. I'm not saying that there couldn't be a mix, but there should be a shift [to include] academics who don't have any ties to any of these corporations.

What else would you prioritize, focusing on these environmental issues, even given a split-control scenario in Washington?

Take what's happened with the waters of the U.S.A. with all the rollbacks. We'll be making the case and putting together a framework, so that the next president, if the president is of my party, can start undoing some of the damage that's been done.

Part of that would be making the case [for] why we need to have a Democrat in the White House, and getting legislation queued up so that when that does happen or we do have the Senate, we can undo the harm. First and foremost, it's going to be some clean-up. But that doesn't mean you don't talk about what the vision should be in the future for next steps moving forward.

Sometimes Democrats are accused of only having one message: that they aren't Trump. Why is this happening? What's your real message?

I think articulating how we're different becomes the challenge. Right now it's hard to do with all the distraction. I mean, I'm having a town hall today and people are going to be concerned about the [Federal Bureau of Investigation], the cover-ups, the emoluments clause, impeachment, because they're worried about their government in general.

Let's talk about the distractions. You just started co-sponsoring impeachment legislation. Can you talk a little bit about the decision? Why now?

We we have another election coming up. We need to know how [Russian interference] happened. We need to know what to do to prevent it from happening again, and we need to be communicating that not only nationally, but all the way down to local municipal clerks who handled the elections. There's a lot of work to be done, and this administration has done none of it. In fact, this administration is throwing up obstacles and roadblocks from doing the very investigation to find out what happened. What are they hiding? What are they covering up?

I think that there's a cover-up, that there's obstruction of justice. That is not something that I can sit by quietly, having taken an oath to defend this Constitution. My job is to stand up and to do the right thing.

I believe the House should bring up articles of impeachment so that the Judiciary Committee—hopefully in a bipartisan way—will do a full investigation. We should get down to work right now.

It sounds like you are more concerned about Russia and elections than about emoluments and corruption.

You can be concerned about both. The president [is] abusing his power in a family business, taking advantage of the presidency of the United States and making money. That's wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It's also spelled out in our constitution that that shouldn't happen.

But what is happening with the [attacks on the] FBI investigation [is] leading to a constitutional crisis and a total eroding of our justice system. I'm very, very concerned, alarmed, about what I see going on with the administration and the cover-up to protect the president at any cost.

Given the chaos and distraction, what's an issue that you haven't been able to get people to pay attention to, or that even you and your colleagues just can't spent time on?

The overarching reason why I ran for office, and why I think a lot of people run for offices, is [to address] what can we do today for the people that we represent to make their lives better. Along with that comes our responsibility to make future generations in this country stronger. I focus on making sure that there's public lands available, that there's clean air and clean water available. And infrastructure.

Infrastructure is never a sexy news item.

No it's not! But [we need] roads and bridges and broadband, a power grid that embraces alternative energy. That's part of our job too. And right now we're so caught up in the chaos and the dysfunction that we aren't even thinking the immediate needs of the American public, let alone what is the foundation that the next generations of Americans can take advantage of?

Our foundation is crumbling. It's crumbling. And there'll be nothing for the next generation to stand on to do the next great things in this democracy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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