Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) (center). (Photo: Office of Rep. Kathy Castor)
Jan. 7, 2019 by David Silverberg
So far the most exciting thing to come out of the new Congress specifically for Southwest Florida is the appointment of Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) to head the new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
In Castor, the Florida Gulf coast gets a member of Congress in an influential position who is intimately familiar with the region’s environmental needs and challenges. This could be a major asset for the region.
Castor is a six-term representative with a long record of environmental activism. Before being elected to Congress in 2006 she worked as a lawyer doing environmental work and served as a Hillsborough County commissioner, where she also concentrated on environmental issues.
In Congress she did environmental messaging work for the Democrats as co chair of the House Democratic Environmental Message Team. That team put out a report called Trump’s Toxic Team, detailing environmental violations, corruption and abuse by administration officials. In appointing her, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) called her “a proven champion for public health and green infrastructure” and “an outstanding leader on the Energy and Commerce Committee and on the House Democratic Environmental Message Team.”
Her district encompasses Tampa and Hillsborough County and has had more than its share of environmental crises. There was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its aftermath, as well as red tide during the past summer. Although red tide levels in Hillsborough County didn’t reach the level of those in Lee and Collier counties, it nonetheless presented a problem for the district—so Castor knows red tide and its consequences.
Castor also worked across the aisle with Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) when he joined her last year in attempting to introduce an amendment to the Defense authorization bill that would have made the oil drilling moratorium in the eastern Gulf of Mexico permanent. That effort was quashed by the House Republican leadership, which would not allow it to come to a vote.
The Green New Deal and the new select committee
In Congress, a “select” committee is one with a special purpose whose members are specially selected to sit on it. It can’t pass legislation or issue subpoenas, which makes it a less powerful form of committee than a “standing” committee, which is permanent and does pass legislation. A select committee is also temporary and can be dissolved after its mission is completed.
The Climate Crisis Committee is also less expansive and powerful than the Green New Deal select committee that was sought by environmental activists in Congress like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14-NY).
The Green New Deal is a sweeping set of proposals to remake society in a more environmentally friendly way. While the concept continues to evolve, it has four basic pillars, according to the US Green Party version of it:
- A new economic bill of rights;
- A transition from dirty technologies to environmentally friendly ones (to make the United States emission-free in 12 years);
- Financial reform;
- Democratic reforms like overturning the Citizens United decision.
In an effort to promote a Green New Deal select committee, on Nov. 13 supporters demonstrated outside Rep. Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill. Among their demands was that members of the committee not have accepted donations from the fossil fuel industry.
Pelosi would not endorse the full Green New Deal program or a select committee specifically devoted to it. Nor would she agree to excluding fossil fuel-accepting members. However, she did agree to revive an environmental select committee, hence the creation of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
Even though the new select committee is less powerful and its mandate less sweeping than Green New Deal advocates had hoped, it puts Castor in an outsize position to influence the House leadership and the entire Democratic caucus. This is especially useful when key pieces of legislation and appropriations affecting Southwest Florida come up—and they will, particularly when it comes to environmental matters.
The question is: What is it that Southwest Florida needs from Congress, particularly on environmental issues? Once SWFL has a list of priorities, it can seek Castor’s help in pursuing them.
The new Congress’ first priority is to end Trump’s shutdown of the government. It has already passed legislation to do so, which Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will not consider.
Presuming a compromise is found and government is functioning again, the new Democratic House has myriad issues to pursue and SWFL could get lost in the shuffle. It should not allow that to happen.
SWFL needs money to make up its economic losses from last year’s red tide crisis. It needs to shore up its infrastructure against climate change and that includes fortifying itself against hurricanes and preparing for sea level rise. It needs to make the eastern Gulf oil drilling moratorium permanent. Along with the rest of South Florida it needs to restore the Everglades and complete the projects already being planned.
Congress should be able to help with all these issues. Fortunately, in Castor, the region should have an influential friend who can help it do it. But SWFL needs to be organized and lobby hard if it’s going make any progress.
(Note: We have reached out to Rep. Castor to get direct comment and learn her plans and priorities. This story will be updated when we get a response.)