06/28/2011 10:52 am ET | Updated Aug 27, 2011

Unmoored From Their Base

Washington, DC -- In the spring of 1995, Newt Gingrich made a big mistake. He allowed Pennsylvania Representative Bud Shuster to introduce a frontal assault on clean water that went beyond the procedural environmental attacks hidden in the Contract with America. When environmentalists and the New York Times dubbed Shuster's bill "the Dirty Water Act," Gingrich's political momentum stalled and went into reverse. Bill Clinton was reelected the next year.

Gingrich should not have been surprised. Republican pollsters like Frank Luntz had warned that clean water occupies a special place in the hearts of American voters, particularly Republican and conservative voters. Gingrich and his party were out of touch with their voting base on an issue that conservatives perceived, quite simply, as an "inalienable right."

Now, in the wake of an electoral victory, the right wing of the Republican party has once again lost touch with its own base and is going after the Clean Water Act. A raft of legislative proposals have surfaced in the Tea Party-dominated House Republican caucus -- proposals that would, if passed, devastate the progress made since 1972 in cleaning up our rivers, lakes, and beaches. Simply by being proposed, though, they also create an enormous political threat to their advocates.

HR 2018, which is making its way through the House Transportation Committee, would eliminate the EPA's authority to enforce clean water standards should states decline to do so -- or even to get involved effectively in disputes between states. The key language is quite direct:

"...the Administrator may not promulgate a revised or new standard for a pollutant in any case in which the State has submitted to the Administrator and the Administrator has approved a water quality standard for that pollutant, unless the State concurs with the Administrator's determination that the revised or new standard is necessary to meet the requirement of this Act."

If this bill were to become law, all progress in improving clean water standards to reflect the latest health and science would be halted.

An attempt by Rep. Tim Bishop of New York, the ranking minority member of the committee, to limit this language so that it would apply only to critical bodies of water, failed.

The leader of the HR 2018 effort is Ohio Republican Tea Party freshman Bob Gibbs, who says he views protecting clean water as a secondary issue that the nation can afford only in good economic times. The impetus for this wholesale assault on the Clean Water Act -- worse than anything Gingrich ever dared contemplate -- was the unhappiness of Florida Tea Party Republicans in Congress that federal courts had ruled that the EPA must step in after Florida failed to clean up its own waterways.

Politically, the Tea Party seems to be doing well in Florida -- and new governor Rick Scott has rushed through his complaisant legislature a bill challenging clean water standards for Florida's waterways. Scott also put through a bill that would prevent local government (which the Tea Party is supposed to support, remember?) from enacting ordinances to limit fertilizer runoff that creates red tides on the state's beaches. Confronted with this threat, the city of Tampa rushed forward its own ordinance -- creating a web of city and county governments from Tampa Bay down to Naples that have prohibited the use of nitrogen fertilizers on lawns during the rainy season. And the vote in Tampa was not even close -- the bill passed 6-1.

But Florida is not the only place where Tea Party politicians are trying to get rid of clean water. In Missouri the legislature almost voted to turn clean water enforcement over to the EPA by stripping their state environmental agency of the ability to collect the permit fees that fund state enforcement -- but then, on the last day of the session, they blinked and restored state authority. Here, at least, fear of the how voters might react prevailed.

Nor is there much evidence that grassroots Tea Party Republicans elsewhere in the country share the enthusiasm of their congressional representatives for dirty water. The current second round of devastating floods in the Midwest, for example, has created enormous public anxiety about the pollutants being swept up by those floods.

There's a reason why Republican pollsters like Frank Luntz consistently find that clean water ranks at the very top of public environmental concerns, particularly among conservatives and Republicans. Unlike dirty air, which is dangerous but often hard to see, sewage on the beaches is visible, tangible, visceral, and (especially) disgusting -- a value cluster that's particularly strong among conservatives.

While the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh media echo chamber, backed with huge funding from Koch Industries and the oil and coal lobbies, has managed to create a major partisan split on global warming (narrowly defined), they have not managed to shake Republican support for clean energy sources like wind and solar nor to diminish conservative concern about oil dependence. And their disinformation campaign has even less hope of convincing Republican mothers to accept more toxic chemicals coming out of their faucets and more animal waste on their beaches.

So why, given the lack of any evident public support for dirty water, are House Republicans going so far overboard? Well, part of it is the hubris of winning a big election -- big winners almost always go too far. But there is also the small matter of who is paying for the Tea Party. A news profile of Ohio's Bob Gibbs summed up his paymasters this way:

"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."

Once again, beneath the surface of seemingly inexplicable and depressing American politics, we find the issue of campaign finance.

Stay tuned: I'm watching and will blog next on the threat of a nuclear reactor site in Nebraska that's been flooded in a "made in America" version of the Japanese catastrophe. We might dodge the bullet this time because, for once, our nuclear regulators got tough with the utility a year ago -- but we might not.