Climate out as Freedom Caucus chair leads House disaster panel

By Mia McCarthy | 07/28/2023 06:30 AM EDT

“I guarantee you, we will not be focusing on climate change,” Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry said.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.).

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) at the Capitol. Francis Chung/POLITICO

One of Congress’ most outspoken skeptics of mainstream climate science has taken over a House panel focused on disaster issues. Climate change, he says, will no longer be on the agenda.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), chair of the Freedom Caucus, also leads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management — the panel responsible for overseeing the federal response to natural disasters.

Perry’s leadership comes as extreme weather events increase worldwide. According to a report from the World Meteorological Organization, climate change has increased disasters fivefold in the last 50 years.


But during an interview earlier this year, Perry said, “We won’t be focusing on climate change. I guarantee you, we will not be focusing on climate change.”

That’s a departure from when Democrats controlled the House and Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) chaired the panel.

“He’s a climate denier,” Titus, the subcommittee’s current ranking member, told E&E News about Perry. “I never missed an opportunity to bring it up.”

History of climate skepticism

During an interview with PennLive in 2018, Perry said he could agree the climate was changing, but he questioned the role of humans.

In 2021, Perry sponsored legislation to block the Biden administration from creating an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity in the Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2017, Perry tried to repeal a Pentagon climate study on military bases from a defense bill. And in 2018, he unsuccessfully attempted to strike climate change provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act.

Most recently, Perry insisted on repealing clean energy tax credits as part of the debt ceiling bill. The provisions didn’t make the cut, and Perry ended up voting against the bipartisan compromise.

The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy organization, has given Perry a 0 percent rating based on his voting record in 2022.

“We have grave concerns about Congressman Perry,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president of governmental affairs. “He is extreme and radical and out of touch with his constituents and beholden to polluter interests as it gets.”

During a 2021 Transportation and Infrastructure markup on disaster relief legislation, Perry called climate change-induced storms a “myth.”

Perry said, without providing evidence, that climate change increasing the intensity of weather was “thoroughly debunked by the actual data.”

“It’s extremely concerning for him to be in this position of leadership,” said Sittenfeld. “It seems that his vote, his comments, his record is absolutely at odds with the kind of leadership we want to see for someone who is the chair of such an important subcommittee.”

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), one of Congress’ most prominent environmentalists, joined the House the same year as Perry and serves on the subcommittee.

“When you look at its jurisdiction — covering everything from government buildings to emergencies — the climate crisis is throwing us all sorts of curveballs that we should be trying to understand and get ahead of,” Huffman said. “But that kind of requires acknowledging the climate crisis.”

Rise to power

Scott Perry.
Perry on the campaign trail in 2018. | Matt Slocum/AP Photo

Perry’s past includes founding a family business focused on water meters — Hydrotech Mechanical Services Inc. — after graduating from Pennsylvania State University with a business degree.

Perry has a master’s degree from the Army War College and served as brigadier general of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

Voters elected Perry to the House in 2012 after serving three terms in the Pennsylvania state House. He represents a Harrisburg-area district.

He boasts endorsements from a variety of conservative and free-market groups, including Club for Growth, the National Federation of Independent Business and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“We commend Congressman Perry for his commitment to promoting and protecting American free enterprise and economic prosperity,” said former Chamber CEO Tom Donohue in 2018 after giving Perry the group’s Spirit of Enterprise award.

During his first congressional campaign, at least one of his Republican primary opponents accused Perry of lacking integrity because of a legal action from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Perry pleaded no contest to claims he falsified documents, according to PennLive, and entered a program for nonviolent offenders.

Perry blames a client — a water treatment plant — that failed to keep proper documents. The Republican told PennLive he did not conduct more due diligence.

“Is it cavalier? Yes,” Perry told PennLive. “But it’s not like this was some big industrial operation.”

The Department of Justice investigated Perry, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

“Representative Perry has directed us to cooperate with the Justice Department in order to ensure that it gets the information it is entitled to, but to also protect information that it is not entitled to, including communications that are protected under the Speech and Debate Clause of the United States Constitution and communications with counsel,” a Perry attorney told POLITICO last year.

Perry, however, did not cooperate with the House’s Jan. 6 panel set up by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2021.

First hearing

Perry has focused much of his attention so far this year on pressuring House Republican leaders as chair of the Freedom Caucus. And he was one of the holdouts against House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) election.

During his first subcommittee hearing as chair, Perry seized on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s goals. One of them is climate resilience.

“How were these [goals] derived?” he asked. Perry said. “Seems to me your focus should be on your mission, which is getting after disaster.”

Erik Hooks, FEMA deputy administrator, responded to Perry using a military analogy: The climate goal helps FEMA complete its mission.

The Army tackles issues — such as suicide among the ranks, Hooks said — without distracting the service from its core mission of defending the nation.

“As climate change continues to deliver frequent, intense and complex impacts, we must apply our robust disaster response approach to disaster mitigation,” Hooks said in his written testimony. “And Congress’ historic investment in FEMA’s mitigation programs has indeed helped us become a more resilient nation.”

Finding middle ground

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle often advocate for improving disaster relief programs. Perry also wants change in the form of promoting spending cuts.

“We spend a lot of money on disaster funding, and a lot of it is duplicative, and that’s a problem,” Perry said.

“We don’t have extra money — the federal government, the American taxpayer — doesn’t have extra money,” he said. “So we’re going to be looking at every program for efficiency and effectiveness and for outcomes.”

Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, a senior member of the disaster panel who was top Republican of the now-defunct House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, has been vocal about securing federal aid for his state but says he understands Perry’s concerns.

“Is there opportunity to improve efficiency? Absolutely. There’s no question, and I think that Scott’s tried to try to hone in on that, and while he and I have different perspectives or maybe doing it for different reasons, there are a lot of goals that we share along those lines,” Graves said.

The Louisiana lawmaker has been a frequent and outspoken critic of how the federal government doles out disaster money.

“You look at stupid things like going out and spending a quarter of a million dollars on a trailer that you go buy down the street for $35,000. None of these things make sense,” Graves said.

Titus noted the billions of dollars the federal government has been spending on wildfires and other natural disasters made worse by climate change.

“Being more resilient saves money; the more money you put in before the disaster, the less you have to put in after the disaster,” she said. Titus called Perry’s approach “anti-government,” while her approach is “anti-waste.”

Despite the stark difference between Democrats and Republicans on the panel, deliberations have not been contentious. Huffman said Transportation and Infrastructure members tend to “not get too sidetracked with conspiracy theories and trips down partisan rabbit holes.”

Titus said she will keep making her case. “And so far, he has been very effective in making his,” she said of Perry.

Reporters Emma Dumain and Kelsey Brugger contributed.