November 16, 2005

November 16, 2005 | Commentary on

Opposing ANWR, Democrats Hit Own Voters

Last week, House Republican leaders abandoned their effort to open up a barren sliver of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to much-needed oil and gas development. Most media reporting focused on the internal spat that divides moderate from conservative House Republicans. But the real movement is to be found among House Democrats: 30 who supported ANWR exploration as recently as April defected en masse, sealing the fate of this drive for energy independence.

On April 20, 201 Republicans and 30 Democrats opposed an effort by leading House environmentalist Ed Markey (D.-Mass.) to preserve the current moratorium on drilling in this oil-rich region. This coalition was nothing new. There has always been an unyielding group of mostly Northeastern Republicans who take their cues from groups such as the Sierra Club and oppose virtually every meaningful effort to increase domestic energy production. Indeed, every single one of the two-dozen moderates who prevailed on Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.) to drop this provision voted against Arctic drilling in April. All oppose it today.
 
Similarly, back in April there was nothing new about the 30 or so Democrats who opposed the Markey amendment. Many represent the energy-producing Gulf states and usually champion legislation to end our dependence on foreign sources of oil and gas. What is new, however, is last week's decision to join forces with their more liberal colleagues and oppose a provision that would benefit so many of their constituents.
 
If the employment base in the districts of these 30 Democrats is any guide, the decision to oppose drilling in ANWR must have been an exceedingly difficult one. Most tellingly, it points to the seemingly unbreakable bond that now binds even the most moderate House Democrats to their extreme liberal leadership.
 
Consider the number of constituents in four of these districts who work directly for the oil and gas industries, or for firms that provide drilling equipment, oil field machinery, oil and gas exploration services, lay pipelines, or refine petroleum products:

  • Solomon Ortiz (D.-Tex.): 5,600
  • Al Green (D.-Tex.): 7,900
  • Charlie Melancon (D.-La.): 9,200
  • Gene Green (D.-Tex.): 16,000

It has finally dawned on Hill Republicans that their Democratic adversaries are united as never before. Republican moderates, meanwhile, are alienated as never before from the overwhelming majority of their conservative Republican colleagues.

This imbalance causes most neutral observers to conclude that the 2006 mid-term elections will present Republican Hill leaders with their greatest challenge in over a decade.

Secret Conservative Victories
 
The war against terror, President Bush has said, would include dramatic strikes visible for all to see, but also would necessitate "covert operations, secret even in [their] success."
 
The struggle to limit the growth of the federal government includes its own version of covert operations that are "secret even in their success." Take the process by which senators can place secret "holds" on legislation, allowing a single lawmaker to postpone consideration of any measure. A determined group of fiscal conservative senators has effectively used this tool to halt the march of certain big-government expansions.

One example is the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Passed last summer in the House by an overwhelming and bipartisan margin, WRDA provides generous federal subsidies for such pressing national priorities as the replenishment of beaches and the removal of silt and aquatic growth from waterways.
 
Republicans being pilloried over their support for indefensible pork projects should extend a quiet but respectful nod of thanks to their colleagues who, through the prudent use of the "hold," have prevented the teetering Republican majority from yet another self-inflicted wound.

The Moral Hazard Society
 
Opponents of the WRDA point to the moral hazard created when the federal government finances risky beach replenishment and oceanfront infrastructure projects. Through the ready availability of federal flood insurance, Community Development Block Grants, loans for wastewater treatment plants, and disaster relief payments, Uncle Sam offers investors an irresistible menu of incentives to locate homes, businesses and resorts in areas especially prone to natural disasters.
 
The message: Don't worry about dealing with the financial consequences, the taxpayers will foot the bill. "Coastal communities," Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), the chairman of the House Oceans Subcommittee, said at a recent hearing, "are growing at an enormous rate of more than 1,300 people each day."
 
"If you want to live in the high-risk areas," an expert witness told the subcommittee, "great. But from now on, you pay. Don't look for a federal handout."

Sage advice. 

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events