| July 24 2019,

2:31 pm

On June 25, The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) released its 2019 report surveying the 2018 environmental voting records of members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).

According to the report, these caucuses of color — collectively referred to as the Tri-Caucus — overwhelmingly voted to protect the environment. The report states the average score of the Tri-Caucus was 90 percent, reported from 0 to 100 percent, as compared to the House's 45 percent and Senate's 50 percent overall.

Since representatives and senators of color often represent low-income communities of color in environmental crisis areas, their votes on environmental legislation are usually of immediate relevance. While it’s obvious an overwhelming majority of the Tri-Caucus votes to strengthen and defend environmental protections, is this dedication to environmental conservation as thorough and enduring as the LCV press release implies?

The Trump Effect on 2017 Voting Patterns

Analyses from the report make it apparent members of the Tri-Caucus generally voted to empower environmental safeguards more often in 2017 than in 2018. Consequently, the average National Environmental Scorecard for the Tri-Caucus dropped slightly from 92 percent to 90 percent. Outlier scores, like Mia Love's (UT-04) consecutive three percent and 17 percent, limit how illuminating average values can be.

Median values, however, are not influenced by outliers — occasionally making them more useful investigative tools than averages. The median score for the Tri-Caucus dropped from 97 percent to 94 percent between the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions.

The 2018 score decline may have been shaped by factors external to these senators and representatives themselves. Since most members of the Tri-Caucus are Democrats, it’s not unlikely they voted overwhelmingly pro-environment, as a show of solidarity against President Trump’s first-year policies. The demographic composition and political leanings of these politicians’ districts, would also subject them to intense public scrutiny in their opposition to the Trump Administration.

While Democrats were still experiencing electoral pressure to defy Trump in 2018, it is possible their environmental voting records became obscured by a historically tumultuous news cycle. Additionally, less public supervision seems to have increased environmental voter absenteeism — defined as a Congress member’s absence from the voting floor — within the Tri-Caucus.

While Tri-Caucus environmental absenteeism from 2017 to 2018 only increased from four to 4.2 percent, members of the Tri-Caucus, collectively, had the opportunity to vote on environmental legislation 562 more times in 2018 than in 2017. That amounts to 31 more absences from the voting floor in 2018 than the year prior. This rise in absenteeism is incredibly important. The LCV counts absenteeism against a legislators National Environmental Scorecard because legislators are often purposely absent for votes they perceive as politically toxic.

A deep investigation of a three percent change may seem overly critical, but this statistical change results in the caucus cooperatively voting against environmental conservation efforts on at least two bills. Potentially, this could have been the Tri-Caucus voting as a bloc to repeal freshwater safeguards established by the 2015 Clean Water Rule, and also voting to cut funding to environmental protection and public health agencies. Limits to these environmental safeguards would quickly and detrimentally transform districts represented by the Tri-Caucus.

A Reevaluation of Caucus Membership Changes

Between the 2017 and 2018 legislative voting period, the Tri-Caucus, as assessed by the LCV, expanded its ranks from 92 members to 116, but the majority of this growth has taken place within the CAPAC.

During the 2017 legislative session, the LCV’s assessment of CAPAC was comprised of 19 members, all of whom were of Asian or Pacific Island descent. At the start of the 2018 legislative session, however, the National Environmental Scorecard reported an expansion of the caucus by 23 — who were mostly non-Asian members. This is likely a reflection of CAPAC membership rules.

While it’s heartening so many non-Asian Congress members are dedicated to the well-being of AAPI community, the inclusion of these members into the 2019 report likely had a negative impact on the caucus’ National Environmental Scorecard. From 2017 to 2018, CAPAC’s median Environmental Score dropped from 100 percent to 94 percent.

In the 2018 session, the newly evaluated members of the CAPAC scored a median of 94 percent, while the returning members scored 97 percent. The difference in environmental attentiveness between the core of CAPAC, and it's associate members illustrates the legislative effects that inter-demographic caucus expansion could have on identity-based political groups.

Leadership Fails to Lead on Environmental Issues

In 2018 the LCV assigned the CBC as a voting bloc, with an average Environmental Score of 88 percent. While this score is extremely high, relative to the entirety of Congress, it is about two percentage points lower than the CBC’s 2017 score.

A two-percentage-point drop may be an insignificant decrease across the entirety of the caucus, but it’s seemingly the function of systemic voting changes from influential members within the CBC. The collective scores of representatives Karen Bass (CA-37), Elijah Cummings (MD-7), Keith Ellison (MN-5), and Cedric Richmond (LA-2) have dropped by almost 18 percent from 2017 to 2018. Aside from Ellison, who co-chaired the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 2017 to 2018, the other three representatives have chaired the CBC.

The heightened absenteeism primarily responsible for this score decline was just as impactful as anti-environmental votes in these representatives’ districts.

For example, Rep. Richmond voted against an amendment to the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2019 — that would have allocated funding to the National Ocean Policy to maintain and improve ocean health.

As Rep. Richmond’s district includes New Orleans, a vote against ocean management policies could adversely affect the economic and physical health of those in his district. Similarly, Rep. Bass was absent from a vote on the Satisfying Energy Needs and Saving the Environment (SENSE) Act, which would exempt coal-burning power plants from meeting clean air standards. Los Angeles, a major chunk of Rep. Bass’s district, has had an extensive history of air pollution crises so it’s surprising that she would be absent for a vote safeguarding air quality standards.

Voting trends among CBC leadership are likely major contributors to the CBC having the lowest 2018 National Environmental Scorecard average, 88 percent as compared to 92 percent and 90 percent for CAPAC and CHC, respectively. Environmentally destructive voting habits and representative absenteeism in the CBC, and in the entire Tri-Caucus, can be ruinous for constituents of color.

The LCV National Environmental Scorecard is a crucial resource in keeping representatives of color accountable and determining which politicians best serve their community.