Don't let their interest group ratings fool you: Some freshman House Republicans care deeply about the environment.
After he learned that the League of Conservation Voters had awarded him a zero out of a 100 percent for his vote last month on H.R. 1, the continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through Sept. 30, Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida echoed a protest heard from several freshmen about being rated for a vote.
Southerland said that while he cares a lot about the environment, "right now the economy is number one." Southerland and others also pointed to what they describe as the overreach by U.S. EPA and other federal agencies as the impetus behind their votes.
The CR that the House passed on Feb. 19 contained several amendments that alarmed environmental groups, and the LCV took the rare step this week of issuing a report card for members' votes on the overall bill and many amendments.
Freshmen scored an average of 15 percent for 25 votes pertaining to the passage of H.R. 1 last month, including a vote on the overall bill as well as 20 amendments that LCV labeled as anti-environmental. Only nine of the 94 House freshmen are Democrats.
Overall, House members received an average rating of 44 percent for their votes on the CR, down from last year, when the Democrats were in the majority and House members were awarded an average rating of 57 percent.
Not all of the freshmen in the latest report card scored poorly. For the nine freshmen Democrats the average score was 93 percent, which was brought down by Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida, who at 64 percent was the only Democrat to receive less than a 90 percent rating.
Two freshmen were among the top five Republicans in the LCV survey: Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire received a 72 percent and Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania received a 64 percent. Both represent Democratic-leaning districts -- and both are in their second tours of duty in Congress.
LCV normally rates members of Congress once per session but Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV's senior vice president, said the group took the rare step of rating House members on the single bill because the legislation marked the greatest assault on the environment in years.
"If enacted into law, this bill would have devastating impact on the environment and public health," she said.
A personal perspective
Despite standing behind his votes, Southerland was a bit stunned when he learned his score.
"That's pretty bad," Southerland said -- adding a beat later, "by their standards."
"I think if people looked at me and people knew me personally and they would know I am a good steward of the resources that I have personal contact with," he said.
Another Florida GOP freshman, Rep. Allen West, pointed to his personal involvement in cleaning up the ocean and beach in his community.
"I am having a beach and dive event in our district where we're going to have a reef cleanup and we're also going to have a beach cleanup," he said. "So this whole mess about West not liking the environment is just a bunch of baloney."
But Alex Taurel, a legislative representative for LCV, said that voting is what a legislator does.
"The rhetoric is one thing but we need to see votes -- that's what makes a member of Congress more pro-environment or anti-environment," Taurel said.
West was awarded a score of 4 percent by LCV, voting only against a measure that would have eliminated the president's ability to designate national monuments.
Asked if he was concerned that his constituents would think him as being anti-environment for his 12 percent rating from LCV, freshman Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) replied, "Yes. Certainly I am because I have a long record of fighting for the environment. I care about this."
Meehan voted the "right way," according to LCV, for his vote against a measure adopted by the House that called for blocking implementation of the Equal Access to Justice Act; against a measure that was not adopted by the House that would have stripped $70 million from the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable program; and for an amendment that the House rejected that would have allowed funds from DOE to be used for the weatherization assistance program.
"One of the difficulties is we get these up-or-down, yes-or-no votes on all these issues," Meehan said.
Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado said he hopes that he is not perceived as anti-environment.
"I think unfortunately oftentimes we try to put in the position that you're either for or against when it comes to the environment," Tipton said. "I'm certainly not against the environment, and I don't know anyone who is. There are those of us who have the perception that we don't have to pick winners and losers."
The freshman from the Centennial State received a 4 percent rating from the environmental group after voting against the national monuments measure that the House rejected.
It's the EPA, stupid
West and many of his contemporaries viewed their overall voting record on the bill as a stand against overreach by EPA.
"One thing we can't have, we can't have the Environmental Protection Agency become so draconian that it's trying to force some type of behavior modification agenda through their regulatory arm. That's what I stand against," West said.
Meehan said in the past he has worked on environmental issues but placed his votes with an eye toward his suburban Philadelphia district, which puts him at odds with EPA.
"I've worked directly on matters that help protect our environment and I want to do so as well, but I also don't want to see an agency that uses their authority to act independent of any oversight by Congress to accomplish regulation what they can't accomplish legislatively when the impact is going to be I could lose thousands of employees in my district and a critical industry," Meehan said referring to two refineries that could be so negatively affected by a specific EPA mandate that he said could cost $300 million to address.
"If I lose 7,000 jobs in my district, that is going to be what it was like when Pittsburgh lost their steel mills," he said.
Southerland said conservation is important but that it must be sensible and as an example he pointed to water issues around the country.
"We have to be good stewards of the water," said Southerland, whose Florida Panhandle district sits along the Gulf Coast. "But I also know this, the numeric nutrient standards that the EPA is pushing on the state of Florida, God himself and the Garden of Eden would not meet that standard."
Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, who received a 4 percent rating after voting in favor of a bill to cap agricultural subsidies at $250,000, which the House rejected, said his votes were about the country's bottom line.
"The debt is now the single biggest issue," Schweikert said. "If you care about certain social programs, certain environmental programs, you need to step up, come up to the plate and start saying we've got to deal with the crazy spending because when we become Greece, when we become Argentina of the last decade, how many environmental programs is there going to be even a dollar for? It is time for fiscal reality."
Schweikert said he isn't going to lose sleep over the LCV rating.
"The fact of the matter is if I spent my life here concerned about the distortions from every individual rating group and every group that wants money, wants something, we might as well decide we don't want to save our country," he said. "There are lots of special interest groups in my district that I actually like their causes and I'm not going to give them money because we're broke."
Despite the grim numbers in this first round of votes, LCV's Taurel still sees possibilities for these members of Congress.
"Hopefully over time we'll see less of these types of votes," Taurel said. "The mandate out of the 2010 election was to create jobs and decrease spending, not to endanger the air we breathe or the water we drink."
Reporter Jeremy P. Jacobs contributed.