Pick a topic such as the debt ceiling, immigration or gun control, then canvass a random group of people concerning where their representatives in the House and Senate stand on the topic. Most folks won’t have an in-depth understanding of their representatives’ views on any given issue, but they will probably have an inkling of how they generally vote.
But if the topic is the environment, few people will be able to tell you how their congressional representatives voted on issues such as habitat protection, wildlife preservation and public health safety. Fortunately, becoming informed about a politician’s stance on the environment has never been easier thanks to the League of Conservation Voters website. The LCV has compiled an environmental scorecard for all elected officials in the U.S. Congress and published it at www.lcv.org/scorecard.
According to the LCV’s mission statement, the “national nonprofit organization ... works to turn environmental values into national priorities” with the intention of securing “the environmental future of our planet.” Their membership is now more than 650,000. In an effort to “educate citizens about the environmental voting records” of the men and women the public has sent to Washington, the LCV publishes a scorecard-style rating of environmental positions taken by congressional members. These ratings have been compiled since 1970, following the first Earth Day.
Final scores have not been tabulated for 2012, but environmental records for bills voted on in 2011 are available. I like the idea that someone is keeping up with who votes how on what when an elected official is given a choice on protecting the environment. When environmental votes are tabulated each year, constituents can determine whether their purported representatives are actually representing them in Congress – and ask them to explain why they voted the way they did.
The scoring system for an individual ranges from 100 (pro-environment) to 0 (anti-environment) and shows how senators and representatives voted on each bill. In the upper house, 35 senators were given a score of 100; 13 had a score of zero, which means they took an anti-environmental position every time. Of course the LCV’s scorecard, like any other rating system, must be evaluated based on an analysis of the scorekeeper’s values and the metrics used to determine the scores. Even environmentalists might differ on whether a particular vote was pro-environment or anti. I do not agree with all the LCV’s assessments on whether a vote was good or bad for the environment. Compromise, as well as maneuvering, can play a part in determining a politician’s position, and an onerous bill may be tacked on to a good one. But the LCV’s rating of a region, political party or person is probably a good indicator of environmental attitudes.
Regional trends are apparent and the website has U.S. maps that show each state color-coded based on the total voting records of its members of Congress. Among the greenest states (green, of course, representing environmentally friendly attitudes) are the West Coast, New York and New Mexico. The most anti-environmental attitudes, based on LCV analyses, are found in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.
Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, has asserted that the 2011 voting results represent an “unprecedented assault on the environment and public health, the breadth and depth of which have made the current U.S. House of Representatives the most anti-environmental in our nation’s history.” You can make your own evaluation by visiting the LCV website and looking at the scorecard.
Using the LCV Scorecard to assess regional voting patterns, check on the records of political parties or specific legislators, and determine how close the voting was on key environmental issues is an acquired skill, akin to an in-depth reading of the sports page. More voters should acquire the skill. The consequences of the games being played in our country’s political arenas are more far-reaching than those of any sport. They have a greater impact than any score every tallied. And the penalties can last forever.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.