New Committee Leadership in Congress - More Gridlock or a New Era of Environmental Lawmaking?

ABA Pesticides, Chemical Regulation, and Right-to-Know Committee Newsletter

Authored Article


During the Obama administration, in particular after the 2010 mid-term elections in which Democrats lost their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, legislative gridlock became standard operating procedure in Washington. In many instances, important policymaking occurred in the context of negotiating appropriations continuing resolutions and increases in the debt ceiling rather than through regular order. To be sure, a handful of bipartisan achievements occurred, e.g., enactment of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which amended the Toxic Substances Control Act, but most substantive lawmaking had effectively ground to a halt prior to the election of President Trump.

With Republicans in control of Washington, many have high hopes for a resurgence in legislative activity, while others are in a more defensive posture, seeking to block new initiatives. Key cogs in the federal policymaking apparatus are the chairmen and chairwomen, and ranking members, of Senate and House Committees with jurisdiction over environmental and natural resources issues. With respect to issues of importance to the Pesticides, Chemical Regulation, and Right-to-Know Committee, the key committees and associated chairs/ranking members for the 115th Congress are:

  • Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) (Chair: Barrasso, R-WY; Ranking: Carper, D-DE)

  • Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry (Chair: Roberts, R-KS; Ranking: Stabenow, D-MI)

  • Senate Appropriations (Chair: Cochran, R-MS; Ranking: Leahy, D-VT)

  • House Energy and Commerce (Chair: Walden, R-OR; Ranking: Pallone, D-NJ)

  • House Natural Resources (Chair: Bishop, R-UT; Ranking: Grijalva, D-AZ)

  • House Agriculture (Chair: Conaway, R-TX; Ranking: Peterson, D-MN)

  • House Appropriations (Chair: Frelinghuysen, R-NJ; Ranking: Lowey, D-NY)

In the House, the only changes from the previous Congress are the rise of Walden to the chair of Energy and Commerce and Frelinghuysen to chair of Appropriations. In the Senate, the EPW chair and ranking member are new to their positions, and Leahy is taking the reins as the top Democrat on Appropriations from retired Maryland Senator Mikulski. Otherwise, the pertinent committee leadership in the Senate is unchanged.

What impact will these committee leaders have on environmental and natural resources issues? First and foremost, it is important to bear in mind a fundamental principle of federal lawmaking: the Senate is where bills go to die. The majority in the House can fairly easily push forward its agenda and its preferred legislation due to rules that provide the minority party with very limited power. In the Senate, however, a variety of rules, including the 60-vote threshold required to move forward most legislation, serve as a significant check on the majority’s ability to legislate. Accordingly, most bills sent to the Senate by the House have a difficult time surmounting the 60-vote threshold.

Against this backdrop, the general expectation is that the House, much like in the 114th Congress, will pass a large number of measures intended to reform or amend environmental and natural resources laws and regulations, while certain Democrats in the Senate will go to great measures to block the more aggressive aspects of President Trump’s and the Republicans’ agenda. With respect to committee governance relevant to environmental and natural resources issues, arguably the most momentous leadership change in a generation occurred with the rise of Chairman Barrasso and Ranking Member Carper on EPW. This follows an era of unprecedented stability in leadership on EPW—beginning in 2003 and lasting approximately 15 years—during which the EPW chairmanship was held by either Senator Inhofe (R-OK) or recently retired Senator Boxer (D-CA).

Going forward, there is likely to be a measure of continuity between the positions and the agendas of Inhofe and Barrasso, in part due to the fact that both represent energy-producing states where federal statutes such as the Endangered Species Act have been criticized by a range of interests. It remains to be seen whether Carper will approach his EPW role, however, with the fierce devotion to conservation causes demonstrated by Boxer. Indeed, Boxer was a stalwart, fighting tooth-and-nail against efforts large and small that some perceived to threaten the environment and natural resources. For example, Boxer opposed a measure supported by Carper—the Sensible Environmental Protection Act (SEPA)—which would have clarified that Clean Water Act permits are not required for pesticide applications in or near water. See Carper, Coons Applaud Committee Approval of Bipartisan Measure to Ease Burden on Delaware Farmers, Some suspect that Carper’s past support for SEPA may indicate a greater willingness to come to the table on certain issues.

Also notable is Leahy’s decision to give up his long-standing position as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to become Ranking Member on Appropriations. With earmarks no longer a part of the appropriations process, the position, in many ways, lacks the prominence that it once held. Several recent appropriations continuing resolutions, marked by brinksmanship, however, have included extensive and substantive horse trading on environmental and natural resources issues. Consequently, the leaders of the relevant committees, including Leahy, will have an important role to play in negotiating appropriations bills and associated policy riders.

After years of gridlock and with the GOP takeover of the legislative and executive branches, many perceive an opportunity to revisit federal environmental and natural resources laws that have been on the books and largely untouched for decades. The role of new committee chairs, in particular Carper on EPW, could result in opportunities to legislate, if only in minor ways. Washington observers will be scrutinizing Carper’s decisions to see how he chooses to step into his new role.

Bart J. Kempf is counsel with Bradley in Washington, D.C.

Republished with permission. This article, “New Committee Leadership in Congress—More Gridlock or a New Era of Environmental Lawmaking?”, was first published in the April 2017 ABA Pesticides, Chemical Regulation, and Right-to-Know Committee Newsletter.