WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidates have taken aim at the Environmental Protection Agency, pledging to cut its federal funding and strip it of the tools to address emissions. But such views may prove a liability with voters on the campaign trail. Recent polls show that a majority of Republicans want to continue funding the EPA, while experts say the electorate largely trusts the American regulatory agency.
"They are catering to a small segment of Republican electorate,” said Republicans for Environmental Protection's David Jenkins when asked why presidential hopefuls would target the agency. When you look at polling on just about any environmental issue, Jenkins said, be it the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act or Endangered Species Act, Americans support conservation by substantial majorities.
Continuing to provide the current level of funding to the EPA is popular among a majority of Republicans, according to the most recent polling, and even among voters who identified as Tea Party supporters: A full 49 percent favored extending federal funding to the regulatory agency.
Yet leading Republican presidential candidates have continued to call for cutting federal funds to the agency, perhaps because of an inherent inconsistency in the polls: Surveys have shown half of Tea Party supporters want to continue funding the EPA, but when polled, they still support candidates who would gut it. Presidential hopefuls have heeded the data on the campaign trail, repeatedly linking environmental regulation to the beleaguered economy.
In a recent CNN debate, Michele Bachmann went so far as to dub the agency the greatest threat to American jobs, and Jon Huntsman has averred new environmental regulations should be shelved until the economy picks up. Rick Perry, for his part, agrees.
In an interview with CBN News earlier this month, Perry asked that the "EPA back down these regulations that are causing businesses to hesitate to spend money,” and as recently as last year he charged that when the EPA declared carbon dioxide a toxic substance, “they put countless businesses, farms, even large churches in their cross hairs."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has opposed the regulation of carbon dioxide, stating on the campaign trail in New Hampshire: “We have made a mistake ... in saying that the EPA should regulate carbon emissions. I don’t think that was the intent of the original legislation, and I don’t think carbon is a pollutant in the sense of harming our bodies.”
Presidential hopeful Herman Cain has vowed to effectively gut the EPA within the first 30 days of being elected, handing environmental regulatory duties over to an "independent commission" headed by oil and gas executives. Ron Paul, in an interview several years back, called the regulatory agency completely unnecessary, while Newt Gingrich has called for the total elimination of the agency.
"I don't see how [these] candidates can think that they can all squeeze through that door and fall all over themselves to appeal to [a minority] of the Republican electorate and that somehow is a smart strategy [for] both the primary as a whole and obviously the general election,” said Jenkins of GOP front-runners. “Most Americans are at a different place.”
When asked if they would “favor legislation to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from spending any money to enforce regulations on greenhouse gases and other environmental issues” only a minority of Republicans -- 45 percent -- responded affirmatively. Among Tea Party candidates the number was just 50 percent. When asked if they favored legislation providing funding to the agency to enforce such regulations, a full 53 percent of Republicans responded affirmatively.
Further, pollsters expect these numbers to rise as the economy turns around.
"This is all in the context of a couple things we've seen the last few years,” Scott Keeter, survey director for Pew Research Center told HuffPost. “First of all, the general political environment for environmental protection is not as favorable as it was a few years ago, and that's largely because of economic conditions. Polling going 20, 30 years [back] shows a fairly strong relationship between [the] health of the economy and people's willingness to prioritize protection of the environment.”
The survey, which was conducted on April 9-10 with a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, a time when Congress and the president were working furiously negotiating a Continuing Resolution to keep the government funded through the end of the year, narrowly avoiding a government shutdown. One might expect surveys conducted during that time to skew away from spending, not towards it, yet a full 71 percent of respondents -- both Democrats and Republicans -- favored continuing to fund the EPA.
"Saying we want a clean environment, basically nobody disagrees with that,” Jon McHenry of Ayers of McHenry & Associates told HuffPost. “It's a question of what types of regulations you put in place in order to achieve that goal, and that's where a lot of the criticism from Republican candidates comes from."
But Keeter says, despite the polls numbers, the GOP's attack on the EPA may not be too harmful politically.
There is evidence that within the Republican party, there still [are a] significant number of people, even if it's a minority, who believe in mission of EPA. After all it was created in Republican presidential administration and there's a lot of support, especially among more moderate Republicans, suburban Republicans. So there may be limits to the effectiveness of the EPA bashing, but in the Republican presidential nominating electorate, which is conservative and Tea Party-oriented, it may not be such a downside.
HuffPost has compiled a slideshow highlighting presidential candidates' positions on the EPA -- who would you vote for?
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who's leading a lawsuit to block the EPA from limiting carbon emissions at power plants, wants new environmental regulations shelved until the economy picks up. In a speech on Monday, he called for a moratorium on all regulations until the economy picks up. Anna Greenberg, Democratic pollster with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, warned that Perry's candidacy could pressure other Republican hopefuls to adopt even more extreme positions. "There is no evidence that a general electorate favors eliminating the EPA or environmental regulations in general," Greenberg told HuffPost in an email. "I do think that as the Republican presidential candidates are pushed even farther to the right by the entry of Rick Perry into the race, it makes it harder for them to appeal to general election voters."
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has dubbed the regulatory agency the greatest threat to American jobs. "Every time liberals get into office, they pass an omnibus bill of big spending projects," Bachmann said in a recent CNN debate. "What we need to do is pass the mother of all repeal bills ... that will get rid of job killing regulations. And I would begin with the EPA because there is no other agency like the EPA. It should really be renamed the 'Job Killing Organization of America.'" Bachmann has suggested that she would eliminate the EPA were she to be elected to the White House. But that hasn't stopped her from petitioning the regulatory agency for direct financial help or aid, HuffPost's Sam Stein and Jason Cherkis first reported.
Jon Huntsman has called for a moratorium on environmental regulations until the economy picks up. And, in last week's Iowa Republican presidential debate, he called for an end to the "EPA's regulatory reign of terror." "We don't make things anymore in this country," he said. "We need to start making things in this country. And in order to do that, we need serious regulatory reform, not just repealing Obamacare, but ending the EPA's regulatory reign of terror." During his time as governor of Utah, he was an outspoken proponent of cap and trade, but he has since backtracked on the position, telling Fox News that such measures could cripple an already beleaguered economy. "Everybody talked about it. At least a lot of people did," Huntsman said. "Every governor was talking about dealing with emissions back many, many years ago only to find that with the economic implosion, we can't afford anything that is going to put any kind of hamper on economic growth."
Presidential hopeful Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, has vowed to effectively gut the EPA within a month of being elected, handing environmental regulatory duties over to an "independent commission" to be headed by oil and gas executives.
Newt Gingrich has also called for the total elimination of the agency, suggesting it be replaced with a new organization that would work more closely with businesses and push for the integration of more science and technology. "What you have is a very expensive bureaucracy that across the board makes it harder to solve problems, slows down the development of new innovations," Gingrich said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Ron Paul, when asked about the role of the EPA in an interview with Grist from a few years ago, called the regulatory agency "completely unnecessary." From the interview: Environmental protection in the U.S. should function according to the same premise as "prior restraint" in a newspaper. Newspapers can't print anything that's a lie. There has to be recourse. But you don't invite the government in to review every single thing that the print media does with the assumption they might do something wrong. The EPA assumes you might do something wrong; it's a bureaucratic, intrusive approach and it favors those who have political connections.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has opposed the regulation of carbon dioxide and other gases contributing to global warming. On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, he said the federal agency shouldn't have the authority to cap greenhouse gas emissions. "I think we may have made a mistake, we have made a mistake is what I believe, in saying that the EPA should regulate carbon emissions," he said. "I don't think that was the intent of the original legislation, and I don't think carbon is a pollutant in the sense of harming our bodies."