03/22/2011 06:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Debating Cutlery? Can't We Do Better?

With so many incredibly large issues facing our country at this time, it's amazing that the new U.S. House of Representatives majority would spend any of its time working on its own composting problems. Since the GOP takeover of the House this year, for instance, there has been great debate over balancing the budget and how to put a handle on our growing federal deficit -- not an issue to be taken lightly as this situation is going take decades to solve.

Yet in a move that can only be described as picayune and small-minded, a program designed to make the House cafeteria greener has been eliminated. Part of the "Green the Capitol" initiative instituted by former Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi has been cut, with cost-savings given as the main rationale. A whopping $475,000 will be saved annually according to the office of Representative Dan Lundgren (R-CA), chairman of the House Administration Committee. Basically, compostable knives, forks, spoons, plates and cups will now be replaced by plastic utensils and foam cups. A statement issued by Lundgren's office claims that the program "failed to produce significant savings in carbon emissions." In the statement, Lundren explains that the house will begin offering a new program that includes reusable cups and plates. Of course, it hasn't been determined how much the carbon footprint will be increased by the need to wash them, or how much this will cost. But that's not really the point at all.

Either way, it's doubtful that there will be measurable financial savings through eliminating this particular program. The purpose of this greening program was more symbolic in nature than truly impactful. That was the point that Pelosi was attempting to make. The U.S. House of Representatives is one of the most powerful deliberative bodies in the world, and has a responsibility to demonstrate what is possible in all matters big and small.

But what's happened to Pelosi's symbolic gesture happened once before, when President Reagan moved into the White House in 1981. During the energy crisis of 1979, President Carter had installed 32 solar panels on the White House grounds to show that we did not have to rely on oil for our energy needs if we look to alternative sources. When Reagan moved in, one of the first things he did was remove them. Obviously, those solar panels alone would not have ended America's dependence on oil, but how different would our attitude toward renewable energy be today if that one small gesture had remained in place? How far along would we be now in terms of alternative sources of energy if that symbol had stood?

Symbols matter, and hopefully we won't have to look back 30 years from now and ask questions like, What if our elected officials had done more to safeguard our environment? Although $475,000 is a lot of money, there must be another way that Representative Lundgren can find it. It's not like the House of Representatives doesn't have a great deal of fat to cut out of its own budget. Cutting this one small program seems to have satisfied a different agenda entirely -- one has nothing to with saving money or America's well-being.

Jonathan A. Schein is CEO/Publisher of and