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Climate Politics Almanac: House Republicans

We take a look at the Republican climate deniers taking leadership

Welcome to 2023. Fossil-industry-backed climate deniers are taking over the House of Representatives tomorrow. The forecast high in DC tomorrow is 68° with a low of 61°, 23 and 30 degrees respectively above the average of the past 30 years, which itself has a strong global-warming signal. It’s also freakishly hot in Europe, the Bay Area is flooding, and Antarctic sea ice is collapsing. It’s a good year to make your subscription to Hill Heat a paid one—climate politics is going to be a hot topic.

Republican Leadership in the 117th Congress

On January 3, 2023, the 117th Congress will begin, with Republicans taking over control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The end of the Democratic trifecta probably means the end of congressional climate progress for the foreseeable future. For this reason, Hill Heat recently focused on the more long-term implications of consequential leadership elections taking place across the Democratic caucus. Republicans will face challenges passing legislation, just as Democrats have over the past two years with a roughly identical 222-vote margin in the House. Still, since their incoming leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), is famous for subservience to Trump and using the House majority to stage media frenzies aimed at harming Democratic presidential candidates, it’s fair to expect that even a slim majority will pass some strident messaging bills. It’s also fair to expect House Republicans to use their leverage over must-pass appropriations, defense, and agriculture bills to engage in obstructionism and brinksmanship, including attempts to reduce clean energy spending and hobble disaster relief. This post will review key positions within the incoming House Republican leadership team, which will be formally elected on Jan. 3.

(Likely) Speaker Kevin McCarthy

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is the House’s top recipient of oil and gas money.

In their post-election leadership election meeting, 188 House Republicans nominated Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.-23) to be Speaker of the House. McCarthy’s family has a long history in Kern County, the deeply unequal, police-violence-plagued Central Valley county at the heart of oil and gas extraction in California. After graduating from Bakersfield High School (home of the Drillers!) and CSU Bakersfield, McCarthy was mentored by two Bakersfield political giants, Mark Abernathy, a far-right political consultant known for pushing the recall of governor Gray Davis, and former House Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas. During the period that McCarthy was on Thomas’ staff, McCarthy was said to understand that “California was not Bakersfield,” and argued for a more moderate and inclusive Republican Party. McCarthy was serving as California Assembly Minority Leader in 2006, when Thomas retired and endorsed him as his successor in Congress, though Thomas later expressed strong disappointment in his longtime aide. Virtually every profile of McCarthy finds some way to say that McCarthy is not as smart as Thomas.

Not long after winning election to Congress, McCarthy was on the leadership track, gaining attention as part of a “Young Guns” trio that included former Reps. Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. Consistent with his reputation of standing only for "survival,” McCarthy outlasted both Cantor and Ryan, mostly by enabling Republicans’ drift toward authoritarianism. His keys to success include a policy of vacuous memorization of personal details about members’ lives, an early intuition that fealty to Trump was necessary, and an obsession with status, celebrity, and becoming Speaker. (McCarthy relished his time as leader of Assembly Republicans following California’s election of celebrity governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and boasted that Elon Musk was a close friend during an unhinged speech against Build Back Better.) His Trump servitude culminated with his vote to overturn the 2020 election results; his brief pivot to outrage during the January 6 attacks was followed soon by a Mar-a-Lago photo-op.

McCarthy is the House’s top recipient of money from the oil and gas industry, and he took the lead in advancing a series of 2017 votes to repeal Obama administration rules, including restrictions on methane pollution, clean water rules, and a regulation requiring oil and gas companies to disclose information about foreign business payments. More recently, McCarthy’s preferred solution to wildfires consuming his district was a giveaway to loggers and a weakening of environmental review. He is reportedly planning to reconfigure the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, shifting its focus to cheerleading fossil fuel extraction.

McCarthy has not yet secured the 218 votes necessary to win election as speaker. Though GOP extremism played a role in their weak midterm results, members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus are demanding a commitment to movement toward impeachment of President Biden (as well as rules reforms, some of which deserve serious consideration) before deciding on their leader. To shore up his base, McCarthy has pledged to punish Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) by stripping them of committee assignments. He has further pandered to the far right by seemingly agreeing to name conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) to the Oversight Committee.

Majority Leader Steve Scalise

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) watches the rising seas in July 2019

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.-1st) is set to become House Majority Leader. Scalise’s background as a state representative who spoke to a white supremacist organization founded by David Duke, who voted against legislation to establish MLK Jr. Day as a holiday, and who refused to define racial violence as a hate crime, received some major scrutiny in 2014. Scalise’s ability to keep his leadership job seemed briefly in jeopardy, but the controversy passed shortly before Duke endorsed the Republican nominee for president. Scalise survived a 2017 shooting, and years later blamed that attack on “rhetoric” against police brutality. He continues to call for more extraction by Louisiana’s oil industry even as his district sinks below the rising seas.

Majority Whip Tom Emmer

Kevin McCarthy, Donald Trump, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), and former Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in October 2019

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.-6), a climate denier representing St. Cloud and the northeast suburbs of Minneapolis, will take over as House Majority Whip. Emmer’s ultraconservative social views from earlier in his career would seem to have softened somewhat, at least on LGBT rights, as he was the only member of the Republican leadership team who voted to codify marriage equality this past summer. Emmer just finished a term as the head of House Republicans’ impressively unsuccessful campaign arm, where he displayed a tendency toward blustery extremism.1 In March, Emmer led a set of members dubbed the “Blockchain Eight” to push back against an SEC inquiry into some of the very problems that led to the collapse of crypto exchange FTX.

Next: A look at the incoming chairs of key House committees.

1 Emmer avoided the fate of his Democratic counterpart Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who managed to lose the newly drawn D+10 New York 17th to incoming Republican Mike Lawler, recently the head of the oil-and-gas front group New Yorkers for Affordable Energy.

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