Just months into his first term, Rep. Bob Gibbs admits he has much to learn. But the Ohio Republican holds strong reservations about environmental regulation in general.
To illustrate, Gibbs offered a homespun analogy, gleaned from the three decades he spent running his own hog farm before the House GOP put him in charge of the nation's clean water regulations.
"When the hog market went south and times were tough, we were all focused on staying in business, paying the bills and paying employees," the avuncular Gibbs said during an interview in his new, third-floor office in the Cannon building. "When we're making some money, we could focus on maybe improving waterways."
The bottom line: "When you're not making money, you've got to try to stay in business."
Republicans across the United States capitalized in the last election on a similar business-now, environment-later message, stoking an anti-incumbent mood among voters still smarting from the recession with hopeful promises of business-friendly, job-creating policies.
Few in the GOP capitalized as much as this 56-year-old political unknown from rural southeastern Ohio. This white-haired Midwestern farmer has since emerged as critic-in-chief of a top Obama administration priority: strengthening clean water protections.
"I think we've made a lot of progress over the years since the Clean Water Act was passed in the '70s," Gibbs said in a recent interview. He recalled the infamous fire that broke out on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River in 1969 that helped launch the modern environmental movement and how he was not allowed to swim in Lake Erie as a child because it was so polluted. "I'm not going to say there's not issues out there, but what worries we me is that EPA has kind of layered on so much bureaucracy."
Gibbs believes EPA has since gone rogue, setting overly zealous pollution goals and imposing unreasonable mandates on industry to the detriment of the still-uncertain economy. "I mean, some of these things you're talking about are a kick back to levels that maybe were never there anyways," Gibbs said.
"EPA just keeps raising the bar, and the home plate just keeps moving," he said. "It gets to the point where it's just so unattainable that you have to wonder. People just get frustrated, and they can't afford it. There has to be -- we have to find a balance."
That message has played well for Gibbs back home. Sent to Congress from an agricultural district wracked by double-digit unemployment, Gibbs won support even from his local labor unions to dispatch Rep. Zack Space -- a better-funded, two-term Democratic incumbent -- by 13 points. Weeks later, he won something even more unlikely for a first-term congressman: a House subcommittee chairmanship.
Gibbs' catapult from the Ohio Statehouse to congressional leader of a key water subcommittee sent a shudder through the environmental community. In Washington, environmental lobbyists fretted over his ties to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the chief opposition group to the Obama administration's clean water agenda (Gibbs served two terms as president of the Ohio state chapter). In Ohio, environmentalists shook their heads at the sudden rise of their proud nemesis in the Statehouse.
"I'm sure he would be happy to be referred to as the anti-environmental member of the state Senate," said Trent Dougherty, attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council, the state's leading environmental group. "I'm not sure of a bill he sponsored that we didn't oppose."
At war with EPA
The 180-degree turn that the House of Representatives took with the last election was especially evident in the changes that came to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Only months prior, the committee's then-Democratic Chairman Jim Oberstar of Minnesota was campaigning to strengthen the Clean Water Act, pushing a bill that opponents, led by the farm bureau, deemed so heavy-handed as to be unconstitutional. By the end of the year, the 18-term Oberstar suffered a stunning defeat at the polls, his bill was dead, and the Republicans prepared to take over the committee -- and tap Gibbs to lead the Water Resources and Environment subpanel.
"Congressman Gibbs' experience as a farmer and small business owner makes him particularly suited to chair the subcommittee with oversight of the nation's water resources and clean water regulations," the new chairman, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), said in a statement, adding that he expected Gibbs would "ensure practical, common sense regulation of the nation's waters."
Gibbs so far has waged an uncompromising war against the Obama administration's water regulations. He opposes EPA's recent effort to impose tougher water pollution limits on Florida and the Chesapeake Bay and wrangled a commitment from Administrator Lisa Jackson during a recent hearing that her agency would not extend similar mandates to states farther west, within the sprawling Mississippi River Basin. Jackson said so even though environmental law experts and EPA officials involved in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup had previously said they hoped it could become a national template.
"I take her at her word," Gibbs said of Jackson's assurances.
He has also shown an aptitude for Washington-style hardball. Gibbs' first bill, a measure that would prevent farmers from having to obtain two permits for spraying pesticides (one for the spraying and a second, Clean Water Act permit for discharging the runoff into local waterways), ran into opposition from some Democrats citing scientific evidence that pesticides were showing up in growing concentrations in waterways across the United States.
During the committee markup, the top Democrat on Gibbs' subcommittee, Rep. Tim Bishop of New York, asked that the bill include a five-year sunset provision, so whatever effects it might have on overall pesticide levels in waters could be evaluated before the law became permanent. Bishop agreed to move the bill forward in committee in return for a commitment from Republican committee leadership that they would work with him on the sunset provision. They never did, Bishop said in a speech on the House floor before he cast his "no" vote.
"Unfortunately, to date, my concerns remain unaddressed," Bishop said on the House floor, as Gibbs watched from his seat across the nearly empty chamber late on a Wednesday afternoon. House Republicans were fast-tracking the bill under a suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds vote but does not allow for amendments. "It seems that the push to vote today on this bill is so great that it has stretched the bounds of traditional member-to-member commitments to resolve legitimate differences on issues of critical importance to us all -- especially issues related to the protection of human health and the environment."
Support from Bishop, who declined further comment, turned out to be unnecessary: the bill passed 292-130, with 57 Democrats in support (E&ENews PM, March 31).
More recently, Gibbs, working with Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.), scored 170 House signatures on a letter sent to the Obama administration urging that it abandon a proposed policy, known as guidance, that would reinterpret Clean Water Act jurisdiction to bring millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of stream miles under federal pollution protection.
Gibbs charged that it was an illegal attempt to "short-circuit" the regulatory process -- an accusation that, in turn, prompted sportsmen and environmental groups to charge that Gibbs was "misleading" colleagues. His letter never mentioned that the status quo interpretation had, itself, been set by guidance issued during the George W. Bush administration.
When the policy was released last week, Gibbs immediately promised to call subcommittee hearings on "EPA's practice of circumventing the regulatory process by imposing costly, burdensome de facto rules disguised as mere advisory guidelines" (E&ENews PM, April 27).
The mining, oil and gas, and agriculture industries -- all vehemently opposed to the Obama administration's clean water agenda -- have been good to Gibbs, who denies that their generous support of his congressional campaign will cloud his judgment as a lawmaker.
The mining and oil and gas industries rank as top contributors to the Gibbs campaign, with $171,000 in total donations. Likewise, in a ranking of Gibbs' corporate benefactors by dollars given, mining firms hold three of the top five spots, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
"There's so many people that are dependent on their livelihood for those jobs, in oil and gas," Gibbs said. "Look at how many people are dependent on what they're producing for energy. So I'm looking at it from the business side, from the aspect that this is good for the economy."
He added: "Most people want to do the right thing for the environment, but there's this attitude out there from some people that you just can't have any of this."
Faith in business
Gibbs believes regulated industries can be trusted partners in environmental protection. The view stems from his experience in the Ohio Legislature. He described how the oil and gas industry helped draft and move legislation that imposed tougher regulations for gas drillers. "The industry actually came forward and wanted them, because they had a shady operator that caused some problems for them, gave the industry a bad name, so they wanted to tighten the regulatory climate," Gibbs recalled.
That is mostly true, said Dougherty, the attorney with the Ohio Environmental Council. But Dougherty has a slightly different take on the industry's motives. Their support, he said, came only after an appalling accident grabbed headlines: In December 2007, a natural gas explosion in Ohio's Bainbridge Township blew a house -- and the two residents inside at the time, who miraculously were uninjured -- off its foundation. The natural gas that ignited had migrated from nearby drilling operations into drinking water wells underneath the house and several neighboring homes.
"It certainly wasn't the benevolence of the oil and gas industry," Dougherty said of the industry's impetus for reform. "It was the bad press they received over the 18 months or so between the explosion in Bainbridge and the introduction of this new legislation."
Similarly, Gibbs would rather see the federal government partner with farmers in regions like the Chesapeake Bay watershed to clean up the phosphorus and nitrogen pollution generated by fertilizer and animal waste. Again, Gibbs referenced a story from Ohio: a cheese factory that EPA had threatened to shut down but that was rescued and its jobs saved by the startup of a nutrient trading program developed with the cooperation of EPA, state agencies, local farmers and Ohio State University -- Gibbs' alma mater.
The Alpine Cheese Co. in Winesburg, Ohio -- which produces Jarlsberg cheese -- had been threatened with shutdown by EPA for falling far out of compliance in its phosphorus discharges into nearby Sugar Creek. Richard Moore, executive director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences program at Ohio State University, who played a lead role, called the program a resounding success.
Launched in 2007, the project put 91 conservation measure in place on 25 farms in Holmes County, producing measurable reductions in phosphorus pollution that were sold as "credits" to Alpine. The company was able to expand, creating 25 new jobs, and surpassed its goal by 20 percent in three years while saving local taxpayers the overwhelming expense of having to boost wastewater treatment plant capacity in the rural area.
"Bob Gibbs was really helpful early on in trying to work and negotiate with Ohio EPA to make this happen," Moore said. "We were hitting a number of roadblocks."
But Gibbs also busied himself with other, less noble endeavors during his time in the Legislature, according to Joe Logan, director of agricultural programs at the Ohio Environmental Council. Gibbs led blustery campaigns against what were essentially fictional EPA regulation proposals intended to whip up populist resentment against the agency, Logan said. Among the fictions: EPA might soon regulate dust from farms or institute a tax on cow farts, because methane is considered a greenhouse gas. For the latter, Gibbs and several other Senators passed a resolution in the Legislature urging EPA to refrain.
"He's not above engaging in those sort of ideological games," Logan said. "Gibbs was very outspoken and not afraid to, shall we say, extrapolate on the facts in order to make a compelling case for his position."
Such is politics though, and Gibbs was hardly alone among the nation's Republicans in perpetrating those claims. If nothing else, his rapid ascent is a testimony to his political acumen and bodes well for his ability to navigate Washington, said Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations for the farm bureau.
"He is a seasoned leader and has a background of doing that in the state of Ohio. And I think he's the kind of person who can really grow into his job," said Parrish, citing Gibbs' presidency of the Ohio farm bureau. "You don't get to be the leader of that size organization without being a pretty sharp cookie. You don't parlay that then into an elected office in the state, and then ultimately, a job here in town without being able to work with people, a broad cross section of people."
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