Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times examined the record of Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) who serves as the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House of Representatives. The Times' profile, which can be found here, shows how the Michigan Republican has changed his environmental views over the last few decades. Here are a few takeaways from the article:
The old Upton: An environmental Republican
When it comes to political positions over the last few decades, Upton’s evolution is interesting. The Times points out that Upton’s road to winning his seat, which he has held for 13 terms, began by ousting a Christian conservative at the age of 33. During that campaign, the self-described moderate made the environment an issue. This played well in the heavily Republican 6th congressional district of Michigan, where the Kalamazoo River, fruit farms, heavy industry, rural areas and forests all coexist.
The unique attributes of this district led to Upton carving out space as a unique Republican. He voted for amendments to strengthen the Clean Air Act, he sponsored the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs, and had a website that once proclaimed, “Climate change is a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions.” But that was the old Upton. Now Upton follows a different political philosophy.
The new Upton: Against the environment
The change for Upton occurred when Republican politics shifted in 2010. The emergence of the Tea Party was key. “Once a moderate, Upton emerged from an unusually close primary against a Tea Party candidate and a tough fight for the panel chairmanship as the standard-bearer for the Republican push to block the Obama administration's major environmental initiatives,” wrote the Times’ Neela Banerjee. By doing an environmental about-face, Upton was able to maintain his seat in Congress. But even that wasn’t enough to insulate himself against the surging Tea Party, which had Republicans campaign against Upton when he decided to seek the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Representing industry as chairman
An about-face on the environment may have been enough to help Upton survive a Tea Party challenge during the 2010 primary season, but it wasn’t enough to appease other members serving in the House of Representatives. When Rush Limbaugh started a movement to sink Upton’s candidacy for the Energy and Commerce chairmanship, Upton was said to “quietly build a base that would testify to his conservative priorities." This allowed Upton to get the chairmanship, and since doing so he has helped the committee to halt EPA rules to curb coal emissions, clean up oil refineries and require the oil and gas industry to invest in billions of dollars in new antipollution equipment. “That agenda has won praise from industry, especially as the Obama administration for now pares back its environmental goals,” wrote Banerjee.
A district that needs the EPA
This evolution allowed Upton to survive the 2010 primary challenge, continue to represent Michigan’s 6th district and obtain a powerful committee chairmanship. And while all of this required Upton to do a lot of changing, many of the problems he once tried to solve in his own district still exist. “His district is the poster child for why we need the EPA," said Jeff Spoelstra, coordinator of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, in the Times profile. Spoelstra was alluding to the fact that the Kalamazoo River is contaminated with PCBs from paper mills. The river is one of the biggest Superfund sites in the country. The heavy industrial nature of the 6th district has made air pollution a constant concern, and the state of Michigan has implemented policies that require power plants and factories to reduce mercury emissions. Despite all this, Upton has opposed such programs on the national level.
If Upton’s district is the poster child for why we need the EPA, Upton is the poster child for politics in the Tea Party era. Republicans are either in favor of the Tea Party’s policies or they risk losing their standing within the party.