Eye On Washington: February 2021

by Kennth Mort, 2020-21 NEC Environmental Policy Intern


Watching the events unfold at the United States capital on January 6 was surreal to say the least. Never in my life did I think that I would witness something as crazy as what has transpired. For those that are unaware, on January 6, a large group of Trump supporters gathered outside the capitol building while congress was in session certifying the 2020 election results. The group broke through police lines and stormed into the capitol building, causing chaos and looting items from the building as they went through. All congressmembers who were present at the capital needed to be evacuated to secure locations while the capitol police and other agencies removed the intruders from the building and disbanded the crowd. What we know as of writing this (January 9) is that one police officer has died and one of the rioters has died. The riot at the capital seems to be the culmination of President Trump baselessly claiming, since November, that the 2020 election was stolen from him and that he and his supporters need to do something about it. Former Attorney General William Barr, who was one of the president’s closest political allies, came forward in December and informed the media that the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and numerous other lawyers throughout the country could not find evidence of widespread voter fraud that would change the outcome of the 2020 election. Despite this, the president keeps insisting that the election was stolen from him and it seems his supporters decided to take matters into their own hands. 

From my perspective, what happened at the capitol was an atrocity. We cannot have a mob of people breaking into the capitol building with guns and wicked intentions because their candidate did not win an election, no matter what political party they represent. Nobody wants anything like that to happen and most Republican congressmembers have already denounced the mob and the GOP leadership is slowly moving their party away from being associated with Trump. I am hoping that this event can create some form of unity between members of the two parties as the country moves on from Trump and finally begins its healing process.



The newly elected Biden administration has not wasted much time in beginning its transition to the White House, despite unrelenting efforts by the Trump administration to reverse various election results. President-elect Biden has made promises to voters that his administration would treat climate change as a cornerstone issue of his presidency. He has released the names of some key people that will be vital to making sure this promise is kept. He has proposed appointing Gina McCarthy to serve as a senior advisor on climate change policy and to lead the administration’s new White House Office on Climate Policy. McCarthy previously served as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator under President Obama and has been credited as the driving force behind many of the Obama administration’s policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions. After leaving the EPA, she served as president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-governmental organization that promotes environmental rights and protections. If appointed, she will mostly serve to write domestic climate change policy and her appointment would be the first step in proving that the Biden administration is serious about taking strong action on climate change.

President-elect Biden has stated that he will appoint former Secretary of State, John Kerry, to serve as an international climate envoy for the United States. Kerry served as a Massachusetts senator, was a Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, and helped negotiate the Paris Climate Accord. He has the political clout to effectively serve in this position, but it remains to be seen whether or not he and his team will be successful in convincing countries like China to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Some other figures tapped to serve in high profile climate and environmental positions include Representative Deb Haaland (NM), Michael Regan, and Jennifer Granholm. Representative Haaland, a progressive democrat who was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, will be appointed to serve as Secretary of the Interior. She will be the first Native American to hold a cabinet-level position. Having an Indigenous voice in such a high-profile position should ensure that environmental justice issues are taken just as seriously as other environmental and climate concerns. Regan, who serves as the head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will serve as Biden’s EPA administrator. He will be the first African American to hold that position. Granholm, a former Michigan governor, will be appointed to serve as Secretary of Energy. She will be the second woman to hold that position.


U.S. Senate

The fate of the U.S. senate was decided late on January 5 as Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated their respective Republican opponents in the Georgia runoff elections. After these developments, the chamber is now split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans. Prior to the runoff elections, senate Republicans re-elected Senator Mitch McConnell as the GOP chamber leader and senate Democrats re-elected Senator Chuck Schumer as the Democrat chamber leader. Now that the chamber is split, Schumer will become the Senate Majority Leader by virtue of the Vice President being a Democrat, and McConnell will become the Senate Minority Leader. With the Democrats in control of the chamber, the Biden administration is now able to pursue more liberal climate and environmental legislation. A wild card in this situation is Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who will become the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. Manchin has gone on record saying that he will not support legislation that he views to be too progressive and will vote with the Republicans, if need be and which he has done in the past.


U.S. House of Representatives

After the dust of the 2020 election settled, the Democrats retained control of the chamber, even after losing a few seats. The House GOP leadership is attempting to move away from the hardline conservative stance to show that Republicans can care about the environment, too. After Rob Bishop retired from the House, the GOP selected Representative Bruce Westerman (R-AR) to replace him as ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. Westerman supported the Great American Outdoors Act (which Bishop opposed), acknowledges climate science as real, and is the only member of the House who is formally trained as a forester. He will also be the first non-western Republican representative to serve as this committee’s Ranking Member since 1979. Westerman has stated that he wants to use free-market solutions to solve climate change, among other environmental issues, and he hopes to serve as the bridge between the GOP’s environmental platform and that of the Democrats. However, House GOP leaders like Representatives McCarthy and LaMalfa are still hardline conservatives. It remains to be seen how much these leaders will allow Westerman to give the Democrats before pulling back. Though Westerman led the bi-partisan and benign effort to establish the global “Trillion Trees” project to encourage planting of trees to offset climate change, he also showed an unwillingness to take direct action to reduce fossil fuels use. In a committee hearing in July, Westerman asked, “How do you have renewable energy without coal, natural gas or nuclear power?” Westerman also opposed Congressman Huffman’s Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act. 


Replacement of Senator Harris

Governor Newsom has opted to appoint California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, to replace Kamala Harris in the Senate. Padilla is a son of Mexican immigrants and will be the first Latino senator to serve California. Padilla and Newsom have been longtime political allies, and senator Dianne Feinstein has supported the governor’s decision.