Rep. Francis Rooney faces the media on May 10 at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida days after his closed-door meeting on harmful algal blooms. (Photo by the author)
524 days (1 year, 5 months and 9 days) since Rep. Francis Rooney has faced constituents in an open, public town hall forum.
July 31, 2019 by David Silverberg
In Southwest Florida the three biggest environmental issues are water, wetlands and oil. Address those and you’re basically covering your environmental bases.
Certainly Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), whose district covers the coast from Cape Coral to Marco Island, was active on this front in the past three months as he aggressively positioned himself as a “green” Republican. He has managed to raise his lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters, the best political barometer of environmental sensitivity, from zero percent at the start of 2018 to 10 percent today.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) has never made much of an effort on the environment even though his district covers much of the Everglades. He has an 11 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters and as long as he keeps his Cuban-American constituency happy in Hialeah, which he does with regular fulminations against the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, he doesn’t need to make the effort.
But the 19th Congressional District is extremely environmentally sensitive, as Rooney learned to his pain last year.
Water quality is Rooney’s number one issue, according to his website. But while he campaigned on promoting pure water in his first race in 2016, he was caught completely flatfooted last year when both red tide bloomed in the Gulf of Mexico and blue-green algae filled the canals of Cape Coral and the Caloosahatchee River.
For weeks over the summer, as the blooms gathered strength, nothing was heard from Rooney. It was a serious lapse that his Democratic opponent, David Holden, tried to exploit in the general election. (Full disclosure: this author helped.)
Rooney won his race in the 2018 midterm election, but he’d received a wake-up call. In 2019 he began working to make up this deficit.
On Jan. 10, he introduced the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (House Resolution (HR) 414). This consisted of a three-word amendment to the Stafford Act (The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act), which provides the legal framework for disaster response. The bill would add “or algal blooms” as major disasters subject to federal action. The bill was cosponsored by eight Republicans and six Democrats, some members signing on as late as June.
However, after being referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s emergency management subcommittee in February, the bill hasn’t made any further progress in the House.
Rooney had some success in 2018 bringing together federal officials to see local conditions and in May 2019 he tried again. This was to be a grand gathering of Southwest Florida officials like mayors and experts from relevant federal agencies to coordinate their responses to “harmful algal blooms,” as they are now known, or HABs. Rooney’s team over-hyped the gathering but then had to suddenly announce that it was closed to the press and public, causing outrage and charges that the meeting violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.
According to Rooney, officials of one federal agency refused to attend the meeting if it was public and that agency was widely believed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was a measure of the Trump administration’s descent into secrecy that this once most public of agencies, whose very mission depends on its relationship with the press and public, has now drawn a curtain over its activities.
If it was, indeed, the CDC that insisted on secrecy, it was an instance of the administration screwing Rooney—and royally. To ensure the meeting proceeded with CDC participation, he bore the brunt of the criticism for closing the meeting, which he did not in fact have the authority to do and which, argued the lawyer for WINK-TV, violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.
But adhering to the spirit and letter of the Florida Sunshine Law has become a lower and lower priority in the great state of Florida. Indeed, the meeting was blessed by the presence of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Rooney tried to make up for the public and media outrage with a subsequent meeting on May 10 that served as a public airing of grievances for conservation groups and environmental activists. They were able to vent and it brought him some favorable press but he was the only elected official present and the auditorium at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida was not exactly “the room where it happened,” as it’s put in the musical Hamilton. There were no elected executives or government experts present and no decisions were made. Still, Rooney had thrown a sop to the press and public.
But whatever good the meeting had done now faced a new threat—the possibility of another government shutdown because of conflict over reaching a budget agreement or raising the federal debt ceiling. In the January 2019 government shutdown essential government operations had been affected; in particular, national weather forecasting, so essential to Southwest Florida, was cut back.
This particularly affected the response to HABs; the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a key player in monitoring their development. A NOAA expert was at the May 7 closed-door meeting and NOAA weather predictions are essential to warning of HABs or red tide so that local officials can prepare. If the government shuts down and NOAA stops working, Southwest Florida will, literally, be at the mercy of the tides.
Accordingly, on June 14 Rooney introduced the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act (HR 3297), which would exempt NOAA forecasting from any government shutdown. The bill has, as of July 9, nine cosponsors, six Democrats and three Republicans. Ironically, one of the first cosponsors was Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.), a progressive member of the “The Squad” and the target of President Donald Trump’s twitter rage.
The legislation is even more ironic in that Rooney voted repeatedly against bills in January to end the government shutdown and then voted again against a two-year budget deal negotiated between President Trump and House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.), which will bring stability to the budget and debt ceiling processes. In effect, he was saying it was OK to shut down the government and keep it shut down, just not the agency essential to his district’s health and well-being that he cared about.
All that said, the bill was referred to the House Science, Space, and Technology; Natural Resources Committee’s water subcommittee, where it remains.
The Everglades are the wetlands that dominate Southwest Florida’s existence and restoring and preserving them is part of a half-century continuum of environmentalist activism. However, politically, the nuts and bolts of Everglades restoration come to a matter of dollars and cents—in particular federal versus state dollars and cents.
The US federal government is pledged to provide $200 million per year for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) whose centerpiece is the creation of reservoirs that will clean water from Lake Okeechobee before it’s allowed to flow out the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This is intended to equally match state funds for CERP.
Rooney has been an advocate for the Everglades since his 2016 run and has consistently pursued measures to complete or advance their restoration.
This year in his Fiscal Year 2020 budget, President Trump allocated only $63 million for CERP, setting off howls of protest among Florida lawmakers. Florida’s two senators, along with Rooney and Rep. Brian Mast (R-18-Fla.), sent a letter to Trump protesting the underfunding. Diaz-Balart, notably, did not sign on although his district covers more of the Everglades than Rooney’s.
Trump agreed to come to Florida to see and be seen on the site and on April 29 he toured Lake Okeechobee and the Hoover Dike where he was met by DeSantis and virtually the whole Republican Florida delegation including Diaz-Balart and Rooney. The latter buttonholed him and—as Rooney would put it— “carpet-bombed” him about Lake O and CERP. Trump subsequently reversed course and asked that the full $200 million be included in the budget request.
Rooney worked hard along with other Florida members to get the money approved by Congress and succeeded. It was included as part of a two-year compromise budget deal reached by Trump and Pelosi. Trump tweeted that it should be passed: “House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!”
And then, when the budget deal was placed before the House of Representatives for approval, Rooney voted against it (!), denouncing it as irresponsible.
If ever there was a disconnect between the ideal and the practical, between the ideological and the pragmatic, between sight and blindness, between success and failure, this was it.
Fortunately, the House passed the budget deal. As this is written it is before the Senate and if passed there, it is expected—expected—to be signed by the President.
If it becomes law, that budget will include funding for Everglades restoration, which Rooney worked so hard to obtain and then voted against.
In a break with conservative anti-taxation orthodoxy, on January 24, Rooney signed on as a co-sponsor of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019, (HR 763), introduced by fellow Floridian Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.). Of the original six co-sponsors, Rooney was the only Republican.
Today the bill has 58 co-sponsors—and Rooney remains the only Republican.
The original Deutch bill imposes a fee on the carbon content of fuels, including crude oil, natural gas, coal, or any other fossil fuel product that emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“Francis Rooney Endorses Large Tax Increase,” raged the website of Americans for Tax Reform, a fiercely anti-tax group led by lobbyist Grover Norquist. “Rooney claims the bill is ‘revenue neutral’ but this is not a truthful assertion. The bill is a tax increase, a very large tax increase.” The group urged readers to call Rooney and push him to take his name off the bill.
Rooney didn’t and on July 25 he both doubled down on it—and tried to make his support more palatable to conservatives.
Rooney introduced the Stemming Warming and Augmenting Pay Act (SWAP Act) (HR 4058) and he signed on as the only other co-sponsor of HR 3966, sponsored by Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3-Ill.), who also co-sponsored Rooney’s bill. Both bills would use taxes taken from fossil fuel polluters and use them to reduce Social Security taxes, increase payouts to Social Security beneficiaries and establish a trust fund that would help low-income people offset energy costs.
Rooney’s bill, however, has a big tradeoff: It would prohibit the federal government from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act for 12 years.
It’s a classic business approach to a problem, using money instead of regulation to get a desired result: if you pollute you pay—but you’re also unregulated. As its acronym implies, it’s a swap.
It joins another Rooney bill introduced on June 21, the Eliminating the RFS and Its Destructive Outcomes Act (HR 3427).
And what is RFS? RFS is the Renewable Fuel Standard, a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It requires that transportation fuel sold in the United States have at least a component of renewable fuel. It was put in place in 2005 to reduce pollution and fight climate change.
Science versus Trumpism
The irony of Rooney’s situation is that he’s making more progress on environmental issues in a Democratic House than he did in the Republican-dominated 115th Congress.
This also applies to issues of oil exploration and exploitation. He teamed with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) to oppose oil drilling in Gulf coastal waters. This was a far cry from the previous Congress when his efforts to protect the shore were repeatedly blocked by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the House Majority Whip, who defended the oil and gas industry and its interests.
When Rooney introduced a bill to protect coral reefs from the harmful effects of chemicals in sunscreen (HR 1834), he was joined by three Democratic co-sponsors and only a single Republican.
His position on carbon taxation and his increasing number of breaks with the Trump line are getting him fire on the right and it is possible that he will face a primary challenge—for being a RINO (Republican in Name Only) of all things.
It’s now more difficult to simply label Rooney as a blindly loyal Trumpist as he was when he first took office. Then, he shared the stage and defended his master and railed against socialism, gun control and refused to admit the reality of climate change. He readily sought the media spotlight, held wildly contentious town hall meetings and called for a political purge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation so that Trump could fill it with willing hacks and sycophants.
While Rooney’s positions on budgets, social issues, labor and immigration still mark him as a hard right-winger, it’s clear that he’s learning that if he’s going to be effective on the environment, Southwest Florida’s primary, existential issue, he has to both compromise and make common cause with the Democrats, liberals and even—gasp!—progressives he once disparaged so readily.
He also seems to have awakened to the contradictions and absurdities of Trumpism, as shown in his increasing number of votes in 2019 against the President’s line. This is a president who is indifferent toward environmental protection—when he isn’t actively hostile to it. If Southwest Florida is going to remain livable, this president has to be resisted.
Yesterday, July 30, Rooney was named a member of the House Science Committee. Science is supposed to be factual, objective and realistic. That’s tough to pursue with a president who is delusional and even deranged and who dismisses any fact he doesn’t like as “fake.”
When Congress reconvenes in September it will be interesting to see if Rooney can navigate between science and Trumpism and where his true commitment lies—and how that will play at election time.
Liberty lives in light
© 2019 by David Silverberg
The Paradise Progressive will be on hiatus in August and September.