House’s chief Clean Power Plan critic heads for the exits

By Jean Chemnick, Jennifer Yachnin | 09/30/2015 07:09 AM EDT

The architect of the House Republican strategy to kill U.S. EPA’s carbon rules suggested yesterday that he is not seeking another term because his enthusiasm for fighting policies he opposes is waning.

The architect of the House Republican strategy to kill U.S. EPA’s carbon rules suggested yesterday that he is not seeking another term because his enthusiasm for fighting policies he opposes is waning.

With the Capitol already reeling from House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement last week that he plans to resign in late October, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) added another surprise yesterday when he announced he would retire at the end of 2016.

"It was just time," the 72-year-old lawmaker told reporters yesterday at the Capitol. "I just didn’t have quite the enthusiasm I think you need against the major problems the country still faces."


One of those "major problems," Whitfield said, is EPA’s bid to regulate power plant carbon.

Yet as chairman of a key Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Whitfield has shown great "enthusiasm" for coming up with strategies to try to remove those rules. He has presided over numerous hearings of the Energy and Power Subcommittee aimed at highlighting their costs and authored several letters demanding that EPA hold off on implementing them.

And Whitfield shepherded two bills through committee and onto the House floor that would effectively kill the existing power plant standard.

Whitfield’s bill in the last Congress would have barred EPA from basing rules for new power plants on technology that has not been widely deployed in this country, like carbon capture and storage (E&E Daily, Jan. 27, 2014). It would have made an existing source standard contingent on congressional approval.

This year’s effort H.R. 2042, would allow states to opt out of the now-final Clean Power Plan.

Both cleared the Republican-controlled House easily. But while Whitfield coordinated them closely with sympathetic senators — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was the lead sponsor of a companion to Whitfield’s 2013 bill — the Senate has been slow to act. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) has introduced a bill that is roughly similar to Whitfield’s opt-out measure, but it is unclear whether it will receive a vote.

Whitfield met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the Senate side of the Capitol yesterday afternoon, but he said the Clean Power Plan was not on the agenda. But he said that both chambers would vote on a Congressional Review Act resolution to kill the rule this fall, after it is published in the Federal Register, and its Capitol Hill opponents would trust that states would follow McConnell’s advice and refuse implementation.

"We’re going to continue to do guerrilla warfare in every way possible, because we don’t want the president to be running into Paris [climate talks in December] claiming victory," he said.

When Republicans regained the House majority in 2011, Whitfield hoped the committee would find a way to reopen the Clean Air Act to give cost-benefit analyses more weight in EPA’s decision to move forward with new rules. He said at the time that he expected some Democrats to back a revision (Greenwire, March 6, 2012).

But recently, he says, even minor policy items have met with major Democratic pushback.

"Even on this energy bill, we’re talking about minor things," he said, referring to changes Republicans made to the language of an omnibus energy bill yesterday ahead of committee votes today — after weeks of trying to reach a compromise with Democrats (see related story).

It should not be controversial, he said, to direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to look at the impact of EPA’s power plant regulations on power supply — as the new manager’s amendment does.

"But the Democrats drew a line in the sand — ‘Oh, now, we can’t do that,’" he said.

"I just think it’s time for a new face with new ideas," Whitfield added.

Changes afoot on panel

The most likely of those new faces is Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), the subcommittee’s vice chairman. Olson represents an energy-heavy Houston-area district and is favored to take over the subcommittee in 2017.

With Whitfield’s decision to leave, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who is next in seniority to Whitfield on the full committee, is now well-positioned to replace full committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who must surrender his gavel at the end of this Congress due to GOP term limits.

"Yeah. It’s no surprise that’s my interest," said Shimkus yesterday at the Capitol. "I ran against Fred six years ago and tried to be a good player and do all the things I needed to do. Hopefully, I’m competitive."

Shimkus, who has served as chairman of the Environment and Economy Subcommittee in this Congress, said he was not surprised by Whitfield’s decision. The Kentuckian will have served for 22 years.

"I think some people thought he was going to do it last cycle," he said. "He’s done a great job."

Whitfield said his move had nothing to do with a House Ethics Committee investigation over allegations that he acted improperly by pushing legislation that would benefit the Humane Society of the United States, where his wife was a lobbyist.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same way," he said. The legislation at issue would ban the soring of Tennessee walking horses — a practice that involves inflicting pain on them to change their gait.

Whitfield’s decision to leave and Boehner’s resignation announcement are unrelated.

Whitfield said he looked forward to a post-congressional career, perhaps involving energy issues.

Fossil fuels advocates praised him as a champion.

"From an energy policy perspective, Chairman Whitfield has been a true workhorse, producing bill after bill that addressed key regulatory issues," said Scott Segal of Bracewell & Giuliani.

Segal lauded Whitfield’s legislative efforts, which he said showed a "keen understanding of the challenges in providing affordable and reliable power. His legislation and oversight efforts as subcommittee chairman "established an important record that will be of use in demonstrating the legal shortcomings of the Clean Power Plan," he said.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, added, "He brought something that is increasingly in short supply: good judgment when seeking a balance between environmental improvement and the needs of working people."

GOP certain to hold seat

Although Whitfield first won election to the 1st District seat in the Republican Revolution of 1994 by sweeping out then-Rep. Tom Barlow (D) and becoming the first Republican ever to hold the seat, there is little question Republicans will retain the seat in the 2016 election.

More likely, the western Kentucky district will hold a contentious GOP primary battle, given that that contest will all but decide the district’s next lawmaker.

Among the most likely candidates is Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to businessman Matt Bevin earlier this year by just 83 votes.

Prior to his statewide win to the agriculture commissioner’s post in 2012, Comer spent a decade in the Kentucky state House, where he represented a trio of counties — Monroe, Metcalfe and Cumberland — that share boundaries with the 1st District.

During an appearance at the Hemp Industries Association on Monday, Comer hinted he could seek Whitfield’s congressional seat if the opportunity arose, even as he suggested he would not seek statewide office again.

"Anytime you run for office you risk losing, but the way that election ended is something I’ll never probably get over," Comer told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

He added that the gubernatorial race "left a bad taste in my mouth. But I’ll say this: There is no place like home. If I ever did anything again it would probably be around home and not so much statewide."

But Murray State University public radio station WKMS confirmed yesterday that Comer would face competition from Whitfield District Director Michael Pape, who confirmed that he plans to seek the seat.

"Whoever it is, I don’t think there will be any one person who has any more experience with this 1st Congressional District, its people and the issues than me," Pape told the radio station.

Whitfield won his last re-election bid with 70 percent of the vote. Republicans have similarly claimed a wide margin in recent presidential cycles. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney took 66 percent in the 2012 election.

Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.