11/12/2013 01:36 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Message to the Tea Party: Stop Trying to Drown Our Government

After the debacle of the government shutdown, it's no surprise GOP lawmakers are pouncing on the botched rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act. Who knew IT troubles could provide such a big political advantage? Republicans have seized this opportunity to distract from their failed negotiations over budget and healthcare issues. And by plowing forward with their recriminations, they have highlighted a significant truth: there is more than one way to skin a cat and there is more than one way kill the government.

Republican strategist Grover Norquist is famous for saying: "My goal is to cut the government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to a size where we can drown it in a bathtub." Now the Tea Party crowd is doing its best to squeeze what's left down the drain.

They have tried to cut taxes and gut budgets so the government can't operate properly. They have tried to handcuff agencies so they can't do their jobs. And as if that wasn't extreme enough, they went so far as to shut the whole thing down. But perhaps the most destructive thing they have done is to make Washington appear so dysfunctional that more people lose faith with the whole enterprise.

Yet poll after poll show that voters hate gridlock, but value what government provides--especially public health and environmental safeguards. In other words, there is a baby in that bathtub that is most definitely worth saving.

According to a survey conducted for NRDC by Public Policy Polling, for instance, almost two-thirds of voters opposed the near closure of the Environmental Protection Agency during the government shutdown. Why? Because ordinary citizens can't force coal-fired power plants and heavy manufacturers to clean up their act. They count on the EPA to do the job--to stand between them and dangerous pollution and to make sure the air is clean enough to breathe and the water is safe enough to drink.

People don't appreciate Tea Party types messing with these protections. While most Americans opposed the shutdown, even more didn't like the fact that it furloughed EPA inspectors. This was true nationally among Latinos, in key states, in districts represented by once-moderate House Republicans, and even in House Speaker John Boehner's home district.

And yet polluter friendly lawmakers--including some Democrats--continue to attack the EPA. Recently Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY) introduced a draft bill that would force the EPA to get approval from Congress in order to set limits on the amount of dangerous carbon pollution coming from power plants. This is a radical rethinking of how safeguards work in our country. It would allow politicians--instead of scientists and medical health professionals--to decide how much pollution is safe for our communities.

Today the NRDC Action Fund with NRDC released polling that solidly shows voters support candidates who will take action to reduce carbon pollution. This is an opportunity for candidates facing tough races ion 2014 to embrace EPA standards to protect the health and well-being of Americans.

Doing the right thing by standing up to dirty polluters is not just good policy, it's good politics.
The bad news? This is only the latest attempt of coal industry allies and Tea Party leaders to weaken government oversight. Over the past few years, House GOP lawmakers have voted more than 300 times to undermine public health and environmental safeguards. Most of these efforts have not become law, but they have taken up a lot of time and energy, and they feed into voters' perceptions that Washington is full of bickering naysayers.

And this is where the Tea Party extremists could gain advantage: voters could start tuning out and distrusting government--including the branches and services and protections they value.

The best antidote to this apathy is to keep voting and keeping following your lawmakers' records. Did they enter government service only to tear down the government? Do they routinely try to gut the EPA and other agencies that protect us from pollution? Do they talk about making government function better but try to cripple it at every turn? If so, then vote them out of office. A recent CNN/ORC International survey found that three-quarters of voters believe most GOP members of Congress shouldn't be re-elected.

If voters don't lose faith in the government between now and the mid-term elections, we could send the Tea Party a powerful message: Americans value government when it keeps our families safe and makes our lives better. And if they keep trying to drown it in the bathtub, we will act as the lifeguard and save it.