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Congress is more deeply divided today than it has been in the last two decades on a wide range of issues, including global warming. In the Senate, for example, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe routinely fulminates that it’s a hoax, while Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse understands the science and is leading the charge for a carbon tax.
Conventional wisdom says the schism between Inhofe and Whitehouse shouldn’t come as a shocker. After all, Oklahoma is a red (i.e. conservative) state, and Rhode Island is blue (i.e. liberal), and elected officials represent the views of their constituents, right?
Despite the polarization on Capitol Hill, Americans in red and blue states agree on quite a lot—including the need to address global warming—according to a recently released study sponsored by Voice of the People, a new nonpartisan organization that wants public opinion to play a bigger role in the policymaking process.
The study, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC)—a joint project of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy—analyzed answers to 388 questions from two dozen opinion surveys taken between 2008 and 2013 on a variety of hot-button policy issues. Besides climate change, they included health care, immigration and U.S. forces in the Middle East. PPC found that a majority or plurality of residents in red congressional districts and states disagreed with their blue district and state counterparts on only 4 percent of the questions, and those mainly pertained to abortion, gun control and gay rights. In two-thirds of the questions, there were no statistically significant differences in their answers.
“Clearly the American people are not the source of polarization and gridlock in Congress,” said Steven Kull, PPC’s director and Voice of the People’s founder and president. “What is the source of this polarization and gridlock? Well, there are a lot of forces that try to influence Congress. You could call it the ‘influence industry.’ There are lobbyists, there are corporations, there are special interest groups, all trying to influence Congress, pulling Congress in different directions.”
Blues and Reds Agree Feds Need to Tackle Global Warming
The PPC study included responses from blue and red districts to 27 questions on climate change and the environment. Given the chasm in Congress on these two interrelated topics, some might find the responses from red districts surprising.
For example, approximately 80 percent of both blue and red district respondents agree that the U.S. has “a responsibility to take steps to deal with climate change.” Majorities in both blue (60.2 percent) and red (55.1 percent) districts also agree that the “government is not doing enough to deal with the problem of climate change.”
The poll results also indicate that Americans are prepared to make modest sacrifices to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, which ultimately would cost considerably more. For example, roughly 60 percent of blue and red district respondents are willing to pay as much as $19.50 a month more for energy and other products. And slim majorities—54.7 in blue districts and 51.5 percent in red districts—say “climate change should be given priority even if it causes slower economic growth and loss of jobs.”
Survey answers to questions on vehicle fuel economy and carbon emissions suggest that Americans of all political stripes approve of recent Obama administration initiatives, including the new proposed rule to reduce power plant carbon emissions. More than 80 percent of respondents in both blue and red districts “favor [the] federal government requiring automakers to build cars that use less gas.” And more than 70 percent “favor [the] federal government lowering the amount of greenhouse gases power plants are allowed to emit.”
Furthermore, majorities in both blue and red districts support international efforts. At least 75 percent agree that “limiting climate change is an important goal for U.S. foreign policy,” and more than 60 percent say the U.S. “should participate in a climate change treaty.” Finally, majorities in both districts—58 percent in blue districts and 54.2 percent in red—agree that “if less developed countries agree to limit their greenhouse gases, the United States and other developed countries should provide them with substantial aid to help them do so.”
Money Talks (and the Koch Brothers Have a Lot of It)
So if blue and red districts largely agree that the government should cut carbon pollution, why are federal lawmakers sitting on their hands?
As Kull pointed out, too often members of Congress seem more concerned about protecting special interests than the public interest. In this case, the special interests are the fossil fuel industries—coal, oil and natural gas—and electric utilities, which have collectively lavished more than $324 million on federal candidates, PACs, parties and outside groups over the last 10 years, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the source for all of the campaign and lobbying stats below.
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