07/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Old Habits Die Hard

It's cool and beautiful up here in the foothills of the San Bernardino mountains. I'm looking out over some of the sunniest terrain in the world, though, and I can survey much of Congressman Jerry Lewis's district from the peaks. So it's almost incomprehensible to learn that Lewis, at a recent private meeting, commented that as the Congressional representative of California's 41st district, he was "concerned about solar power because it might compete with coal." There is, after all, no coal in the 41st District to compete with its sun for its representative's attention. (I have not lately heard anyone in the West Virginia Congressional delegation criticize coal for competing with solar -- nor would I expect to -- these folks are supposed to represent their districts!) But when I go onto Lewis's website I find a screed attacking the House Commerce Committee climate bill for, among other sins, not doing enough for coal -- but no mention of its watered-down provisions for solar power, which should be the economic engine of the 41st District.

Lewis was once one of the environmental leaders in his party -- first in the California legislature, then in Congress. In the 1980s he was one of the Republicans who worked tirelessly to strengthen the Clean Air Act. So it's sad to see where he has drifted -- and how deeply his party's capture by Big Carbon has pulled him away from the real interests of those who elect him. If you doubt my phrase "capture," admittedly a strong one, you might want to look at this little gem. The talking points being used by the Republican leadership to attack the House Commerce Committee bill were, it turns out, actually written by paid employees of Peabody Coal! Why lobby when you can just write the script? And note that Peabody is working to kill the House Commerce bill in spite of the fact that it had already been terribly compromised in an effort to win support from coal-district representatives. Nothing will satisfy these guys.

And although we are seeing real leadership from the Obama administration on coal issues, Big Coal implanted itself deep in the federal bureaucracy during the Bush years, and it still has powerful allies it can call on. When Senator Barbara Boxer attempted to release a list, prepared by the EPA, of 44 coal-ash disposal sites, each of which posed the threat of a public health catastrophe like last December's Tennessee spill, the Department of Homeland Security told Boxer she couldn't release the map, because these sites -- regulated like ordinary garbage dumps -- were so dangerous that they might serve as magnets for terrorists! Now we already know it doesn't take a terrorist to cause a catastrophic coal-ash break -- a hard winter rain after a little freeze will do just fine.

So in response to this cover-up, a coalition of groups organized by the Sierra Club has filed a Freedom of Information Act request, demanding that Homeland Security allow the EPA to tell communities at risk just how big a danger they face. There are hundreds of coal-ash dumps around the country -- surely we need to start safeguarding the most lethal 44 immediately. Don't expect that to happen, though, until we generate more public pressure to get these sites identified and cleaned up.

Coal is not alone in clinging to the worst Washington habits. The House Armed Services committee, on a narrow 31-30 vote, chose to buy fighter jets that the Pentagon says it doesn't want and doesn't need. And how did the Committee come with the bucks for this boondoggle? Oh, the $369 million came from cutting funding for cleaning up public-health hazards created by the military on its bases and other facilities. So we buy planes we don't need, and communities will continue to be poisoned by their government because the money to clean up has been siphoned off.

The old habits of special interest dealing, cover up and delay, work for those who pay your campaign bills, not those who elect you, and let the past strangle the future still hold on in Washington. The President has called for some new habits, but we need to send a bigger fire hose if we're going to clean out the D.C. stables.