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Democrats Plan More Environmental Oversight If Midterms Swing Their Way


President Trump talks about slashing regulations as one of his greatest achievements. A lot of those regulations are connected to the environment. Congress has largely gone along for the ride. That may change this November, though. NPR's Nathan Rott reports on what a new Congress could mean for the environment.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The environment is not typically a top-of-ticket issue for voters, but this has not been a typical year.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California - now the largest in state history.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Thirty-three million people at risk for extreme heat - heat indexes...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Hurricane Florence is already making its presence known along the Carolina coast.

ROTT: Now, none of this has pushed the environment over issues like health care or immigration in the minds of most voters, but it does make for easy messaging in states where the effects of climate change are already being felt. Cue B-roll of raging wildfires.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICEOVER: It's getting hotter, but while fire and smoke choke our air, Dana Rohrabacher is radically opposed to efforts to fight climate change.

DANA ROHRABACHER: Global warming is a fraud.

ROTT: Ads like this have been appearing throughout California, Florida and in swing districts across the country, targeting Republican lawmakers. It's part of a multimillion-dollar effort by the League of Conservation Voters to flip the House to Democrats. Tiernan Sittenfeld is a vice president with the conservation group.

TIERNAN SITTENFELD: If we had environmental allies leading the House of Representatives, they could do badly needed oversight on the Trump administration's efforts to cater to polluters every day over our communities.

ROTT: That word, oversight, is one you hear a lot from Democrats, in part because there's not a whole lot else they can do. Most of the rollbacks in environmental policy are happening in the executive branch under Trump appointees. A shift in House leadership won't change that. Democrats can't force Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to restore Bears Ears National Monument, for example, or to crack down on methane emissions. But they can force him to explain himself. Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva is the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

RAUL GRIJALVA: I want to change the narrative of this whole thing, where the Resources Committee is not just a passive part of the Trump administration, that they're independent and that they have responsibility as co-equals for oversight and accountability.

ROTT: Translation - expect hearings, lots of them, if Democrats retake the House. Tom Pyle heads the American Energy Alliance, which supports Trump's agenda. He says a Democratic majority in the House would be a setback for the administration.

TOM PYLE: And they would be able to tie them up mercilessly so that they would kind of be able to slow walk a lot of the good work that's being done with respect to these issues.

ROTT: Democrats already have a working list. Here's Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee for Energy and Commerce.

DIANA DEGETTE: I think you will be seeing investigations and hearings around the methane rule, the Clean Power Plan and the clean car rules. You're going to be seeing us look more in-depth at conflicts of interest and corruption at the EPA.

ROTT: And the list goes on. DeGette says this year's midterms remind her of what happened in 2006, when Democrats took back the House under President George W. Bush. For the following two years, Democrats called hearings and investigations and crafted legislation that they knew would not pass under a Republican president.

DEGETTE: But then, when President Obama was elected in 2008, we were able to move a robust legislative agenda because we had spent the last two years developing it.

ROTT: Now, of course, Republicans could keep their majority in Congress, which would mean continued support for the administration's deregulatory agenda.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.


Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.